Dorothy Jean Weaver | Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tragic for everyone
Gaza 2009. A scene of almost incalculable tragedy. Body count: Some 1,300 Palestinians, 13 Israelis. On one side of the border massive death, brutal destruction and unceasing terror rain down from the skies on a civilian population with nowhere to flee for safety. Untold misery and despair on the ground for men, women, and children without food, medicine, warmth, or even a safe place to hide. On the other side of the border constant fear and anxiety among other civilians not far away who spend their days in fear of air raid sirens and wonder daily where the next rockets will land. It is a terrifying scene for everyone affected.
But Gaza 2009 was a human tragedy waiting to happen, a human catastrophe building for long decades. And the causes, on both sides, are perhaps too many to name and surely far more complex than a 30-second soundbite on the evening news. Understanding the events of the past weeks can seem frighteningly complex. It could require, on the one hand, combing the past 60-plus years of Middle East history for deep-rooted historical, political and sociological causes behind the recent actions of the warring parties. Or it can seem dangerously simplistic, the act of throwing just the right epithets at one’s opponents. The words “terrorist” and “violence” come readily to mind. But understanding the events of the past weeks can be an exercise equally simple and profound, the act of listening deeply to one’s own heart, to the hearts of those who are suffering, and above all to the compassionate heart of God.
I am no historian. Nor am I a politician or a social scientist. I am one who reads and ponders the significance of the New Testament and its message for the followers of Jesus and, beyond them, for the entire world of humanity. And I am one who travels regularly to Israel/Palestine as a tour leader, a scholar, and sometimes even a teacher. Over time I have learned a bit about the past 60-plus years of Middle East history. I have reflected on the radical “good news” of the Scriptures. I have gained a wealth of personal experiences of my own “on the ground” in Israel/Palestine that give me perspective on the violence there. And I have sought, and in fact been compelled, to listen deeply to my own heart, to the hearts of countless suffering people and to the compassionate heart of God. From the understandings I have gained, the experiences I have lived, the Scriptures I have read, and the thoughts I have pondered I offer a few very simple reflections on the tragedy of Gaza 2009.
Violence begets violence. It was spring 1996, a tense enough time in Israel/Palestine. Suicide bombs were exploding on Israeli busses. Tensions were high and security measures visible everywhere, especially at border locations. One very chilly night, when Israeli soldiers had detained four Palestinian men at the back gate of Tantur Ecumenical Institute and were holding them there in the cold, several of us took blankets down to the back gate for the detainees. As we distributed our blankets, we engaged the soldiers in discussion. My own words expressed a deep belief of mine that has proven true in many and tragic ways since then at countless sites of devastation created by Palestinian suicide bombers:“These men may not be terrorists now. But if you treat them in this way, they may well become terrorists.”
And in fact it is the real and everyday “violence” of Israeli military occupation over the past 40-plus years that has turned the State of Israel into its own worst enemy and created the very “terrorism” that continues to endanger the lives of ordinary Israelis. The rockets that come from Gaza are nothing less than the bitter fruit of long years of military harassment, brutality and humiliation carried out against an “occupied” people in an “occupied” land. This bitter fruit grows from the bitter seeds of countless military checkpoints and road blocks, the demolition of hundreds of houses and olive groves and persistent land confiscation. And this bitter fruit grows in the bitter soil of a year-long blockade of Gaza, massive joblessness, lack of basic amenities and life in the world’s largest open-air prison. It is this bitter fruit, these bitter seeds and this bitter soil that the State of Israel must attend to urgently, if it wishes to stop the rockets coming from Gaza. And it is this systemic and deeply-entrenched violence, the very apparatus of “military occupation,” that the State of Israel must eradicate, if it wishes to build a secure future for itself and its citizens.
Violence does not solve violence. The tragedy of Gaza 2009 is a twofold tragedy, both Palestinian and Israeli. Not only have the Palestinians of Gaza, through the desperate and defiant actions of violent radicals in their midst, experienced catastrophic losses of all sorts: of human lives, of physical infrastructure to support human communities, of the basic resources for everyday life, of hope for the future. But the Israeli military has likewise, through its vicious bombardment of helpless Gazans trapped in their tiny “strip” of land, sown countless seeds of bitterness within the Palestinian community in Gaza and far beyond, seeds that will inevitably and paradoxically bear yet more bitter fruit for the Israeli people in days and years to come. The violence of rockets fired from Gaza will never solve the violence of Israeli military occupation. Conversely, the violence of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza will never solve the violence of Palestinian “terrorism.”
2,000 years ago Jesus had a word for this mutually destructive, “lose-lose” game being played out by Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza of 2009. Like the present-day Palestinians, Jesus lived under “occupation” in an “occupied” country. He knew the bitterness and the humiliations of everyday life lived under the brutal rule of Rome. But Jesus saw clearly that violence never would and never could solve violence. “Put your sword back into its place,” Jesus says to Peter, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). It’s a powerful note of realism and an urgent word of truth for the Gaza of 2009. Jesus had more, much more, to say about ending violence. But surely this is the place to start.
– Dorothy Jean Weaver is professor of New Testament at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg. Her reflection does not represent an official position of the seminary or of Eastern Mennonite University.