Israel’s blockade on exports is similarly vast and arbitrary. Israel allows farmers in Gaza to sell tomatoes and eggplants to Israel but not potatoes, spinach and beans. It allows them to export 450 tons of eggplant and tomatoes per month but not more. Spinach, evidently, is more dangerous than eggplant. And 500 tons of eggplant and tomatoes are more dangerous than 450.
From a certain ultra-myopic perspective, even this has a security rationale. If you see every person leaving Gaza only as a potential terrorist and every container only as the potential hiding place for a bomb, then the fewer people and goods that leave Gaza for Israel or the West Bank (which unlike Gaza, still contains Israelis), the safer Israel is. What this ignores is that terrorism doesn’t only require opportunity; it also requires intent. And when you bankrupt a Gazan farmer by blocking his exports or crush a Gazan student’s dreams by denying her the chance to study abroad, you may breed the desperation and hatred that produces terrorism, and thus undermine the very Israeli security you’re trying to safeguard.
The dirty little secret of Israel’s blockade is that elements of it are motivated less by any convincing security rationale than by economic self-interest. In 2009, Haaretz exposed the way Israeli agricultural interests lobby to loosen restrictions on imports into Gaza when Israeli farmers want to sell surplus goods. In 2011, Israel found itself with a shortage of lulavs, the palm fronds that observant Jews shake on the holiday of Sukkot. So Israel lifted its ban on Gaza’s export of palm fronds. Had the security risk suddenly changed? Of course not. What had changed were the needs of Israeli consumers.
When you think about it, this isn’t surprising. The Israeli government is accountable to Israeli citizens. It’s not accountable to the people of Gaza, despite wielding enormous power over their lives. When governments wield unaccountable power, they become abusive and corrupt. Why does Israel maintain a blockade that is not only cruel but, in some ways, absurd? Because it can.
Closely associated with the “security” justification is a third word that features prominently in American Jewish defenses of Israeli policy in Gaza: “Hamas.” AIPAC declared in a recent fundraising email that “Hamas has a deliberate strategy: challenge Israel’s sovereignty, attack Israeli citizens while hiding behind the people of Gaza, and find new ways to threaten Israel’s very right to exist.” The recent border protests, argued Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt, “featured literal calls by Hamas leaders in the crowds to march ‘on to Jerusalem,’ a theme consistent with the ideology of Hamas, which is to destroy the Jewish state.” From one side of their mouths, American Jewish leaders insist that Israel no longer controls Gaza. But when confronted with the control Israel actually wields, their justifications generally boil down to: “security” and “Hamas.”
Hamas is indeed a brutal and destructive force, to both Israelis and Palestinians. It has a long and ugly record of terrorist attacks. It does not recognize Israel. Its Islamist ideology is deeply oppressive, especially to women, LGBTQ Palestinians and religious dissenters.
But Hamas did not force Israel to adopt the policies that have devastated Gaza. Those policies represent a choice — a choice that has not only failed to dislodge Hamas, but has also created the very conditions in which extremism thrives.
In January 2006, four months after Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem went to the polls to elect representatives to the Palestinian Authority’s parliament. (Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was elected separately a year earlier). Hamas won only 45 percent of the vote. But because Fatah — the comparatively secular party founded by Yasser Arafat — ran multiple candidates in many districts, thus splitting the vote, Hamas gained 58 percent of the seats.
This presented Israel with a problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli leaders had actually viewed Palestinian Islamists as more moderate than the Fatah-dominated PLO, and therefore allowed them greater freedom to organize. In his book Gaza: A History, French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu notes that in 1988 — a year after Hamas’s creation — one of the party’s cofounders, Mahmoud Zahar, met with Israel’s then-Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres “to propose a tacit recognition of Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967.”
But when the PLO publicly recognized Israel in 1988 and reaffirmed that recognition at the start of the Oslo Peace Process in 1993, Hamas’s rejectionism became impossible for Israel to ignore. Hamas denounced the PLO for recognizing Israel. And during the Oslo Process and the Second Intifada that followed, Hamas launched numerous terrorist attacks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Israel did not welcome a Hamas-led government.
There were, however, signs that Hamas might be softening its opposition to two states. Just its decision to compete in the 2006 campaign — after boycotting previous Palestinian Authority elections on the grounds that they legitimized the Oslo Process — suggested a shift. In its 2006 election manifesto, Hamas made no reference to Israel’s destruction. It spoke instead about “the establishment of an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem.” After its surprise victory, Hamas leaders did not offer to recognize Israel. But Zahar did declare that, in return for “our independent state on the area occupied [in] ’67,” Hamas would support a “long-term truce” and “after that, let time heal.” (As former CIA official Paul Pillar has noted, a long-term truce is what today exists between North and South Korea, since no peace treaty officially ended the Korean War.) Another Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, argued that, “If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, there could be peace and security in the region.”
Hamas was likely following popular opinion. Exit polling by the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki found that while Hamas benefited from frustration with Fatah’s corruption and failure to uphold law and order, 75% of Palestinian voters — and a remarkable 60 percent of Hamas voters — favored the two-state solution. Perhaps that explains why, after its victory, Hamas proposed a unity government with Fatah “for the purpose of ending the occupation and settlements and achieving a complete withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, so that the region enjoys calm and stability during this phase.”
Israel could have embraced this. Even in a unity government, Abbas — who had been elected separately — would have remained president. It was widely assumed that if he reached a peace agreement with Israel, Palestinians, like Israelis, would vote on it in a referendum. The crucial question, therefore, was not whether Hamas as a party endorsed the two-state solution. (After all, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party had never endorsed the two-state solution.) The crucial question was whether — if the Palestinian people formally endorsed a two-state deal — Hamas would respect their will (something Hamas later pledged to do). Had Hamas, or any other Palestinian faction, committed acts of violence, Israel would have retained the right to respond.
That was the path not taken. Instead, the United States and Israel demanded that Hamas formally foreswear violence, embrace two states and accept past peace agreements — a standard that Netanyahu’s own government does not meet. Hamas, which spent the Oslo years calling the PLO dupes for recognizing Israel without getting a Palestinian state in return, refused. So Washington and Jerusalem pressured Abbas to reject a national unity government and govern without a democratically elected parliament. Then, in 2007, the Bush administration encouraged Abbas’s national security advisor, Mohammed Dahlan, to oust Hamas from Gaza by force, a gambit that backfired when Hamas won the battle on the ground. And with Hamas now ensconced in power, Israel dramatically tightened its blockade of Gaza, which it has maintained — with modifications — ever since.
The result: Gaza has been devastated, and Hamas remains in power.
Which brings us to the current protests. The Israeli government’s American defenders insist that Israel cannot let thousands of demonstrators — some of them violent — tear down the fence and begin streaming toward the kibbutzes and towns on the other side. That’s true, but it misses the larger point. No government finds it easy to quell mass protests. The deeper question is always: What has that government done to address the grievances that sparked the protests in the first place? For more than a decade, Israel’s answer to the problem of Gaza has been collective punishment and terrifying force. For stretches of time, this has kept Gaza quiet. And it may again. In the coming weeks, Israeli soldiers may kill and maim enough protesters to scare the rest back into their prison enclave. But sooner or later, Gaza will rise again. And the longer Israel suffocates its people, the more desperate and vengeful their uprisings will become. A 10-year-old in Gaza has already endured three wars. According to the United Nations, three hundred thousand children in Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress from the 2014 conflict alone. Do Israeli and American Jewish leaders really believe that brutalizing them even more by denying them adequate food, education, electricity and water will make them more likely to live in peace with Israel? By maintaining its blockade, Israel is not pushing Gaza’s next generation toward coexistence. It’s pushing it toward ISIS.
The alternative is a strategy built not on collective punishment but on hope. It would begin with dismantling much of the blockade. Israel has the right to search cargo entering and exiting leaving Gaza. It has the right to investigate people traveling to and from there — and to restrict their movement if it finds evidence they’re a threat. But there’s a vast difference between restricting the movement of particular individuals that you have reason to suspect of terrorism and restricting entire classes of people based on no individual suspicion at all. There’s a vast difference between restricting certain imports that could be used to construct tunnels or bombs and prohibiting the export of potatoes and beans. Except when there’s a clear, specific danger, Israel should allow the people of Gaza to study, travel, trade and gain the resources to live decent lives. Doing so would not only be humane. It would also be wise. Israel will be safer when people in Gaza have something to lose.
A strategy of hope would involve allowing (and even encouraging) Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to hold free elections for the first time in more than 12 years. And that would require allowing Palestinians to vote for whichever party they choose. Israel has the right to retaliate if Hamas, or any other Palestinian faction, attacks it. It does not have the right to bar Palestinians from voting for parties that reject the two-state solution when Israelis do so all the time.
A strategy of hope would mean embracing the Arab Peace Initiative and the Clinton Parameters: a viable Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. It would mean ending settlement growth, and perhaps even paying settlers to move back inside the green line so as to keep hopes for a two-state solution alive.
Finally, a strategy of hope would require Israeli and American Jewish leaders to talk honestly about why 70% of the people in Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees. Israeli and American Jews find it frightening that the Gaza protesters have labeled their demonstrations “The Great March of Return.” But surely Jews — who prayed for 2,000 years to return to the land from which we were exiled — can understand why Palestinians in Gaza might yearn for lands from which they were exiled a mere 70 years ago. That yearning does not make Palestinians anti-Semites or terrorists. If Moshe Dayan could express sympathy in 1956 for the inhabitants of “the refugee camps of Gaza” who have “seen, with their own eyes, how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears once dwelt,” why can’t today’s Israeli leaders acknowledge, and offer recompense for, the Nakba? Why is it considered inconceivable that Israel would permit the return of a single Palestinian refugee when, in 1949, a far more fragile Israel offered to readmit 100,000.
Netanyahu and Trump. But who makes it absurd? To a significant extent, we American Jews do. The organized American Jewish community doesn’t only conceal the truth about Gaza from itself. It lobbies American politicians to do the same. The American Jewish establishment exports its “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” to Washington. It excoriates politicians who dare to suggest that Israel bears some of the responsibility for Gaza’s suffering. In doing so, it helps to sustain Israel’s current policies and to foreclose alternatives.
The struggle for human decency, Orwell argued, is also a struggle for honest language. Our community’s complicity in the human nightmare in Gaza should fill every American Jew with shame. The first step toward ending that complicity is to stop lying to ourselves.