I submitted this for publication, first to The Boston Globe and then to The Free Press.
Neither accepted it for publication — or, to be more precise, I have not heard back from either of them after waiting a plausibly long time for a response…
So, here it is.
16 December 2023
“Israel should implement a unilateral and permanent cease-fire in Gaza!”
The calls are relentless and come from everywhere. From politicians. From diplomats. From concerned citizens. From peace activists. From Humanitarian organizations. From advocacy groups around the world, both explicitly Palestinian and generally “anti-colonialist”. The U.N. security council would have demanded it but for a U.S. veto. The U.N. general assembly did demand it over U.S. objections.
The toll on civilian bystanders in Gaza shocks the conscience, so the heart cries out for it.
My heart cries out for it.
And, yet, my head also cries out: What is the alternative?
Because, in the absence of an alternative, a demand for a unilateral and permanent cease-fire is, in effect, a demand for preservation of the status quo.
And the status quo is unacceptable!
I am neither Jewish nor particularly religious. My views on this are untainted by theological fervor or tribal loyalty. I disagree in many fundamental ways with policies the Israeli government has implemented over the years. The notion of pushing Jewish settlements into a conquered but contested West Bank should have been stillborn at the time it was first proposed and, given that it wasn’t, should have been halted and reversed decades ago. And I believe Hamas should have been given a formal opportunity to live up to its responsibilities as a national government for Gazan Palestinians, rather than immediately and immutably isolated as illegitimate. I doubt, in the end, they would have done so. I doubt it would have changed their behavior at all. But it would have given Israel a slight elevation in moral authority in the eyes of the world: “We legitimately tried to work with them. It’s not our fault that they wouldn’t work with us!”
But I recognize and acknowledge that ancient Israel was the nation and homeland for one of the major indigenous tribes in Palestine, and that modern Israel has existed for 75 years as a legitimately chartered nation created by international consensus for the current-day descendants of that tribe in the aftermath of a genocidal cataclysm. It is a prosperous and healthy democracy that, by and large, does well by its citizens, including its non-Jewish citizens. It has a right to continue to exist.
Whereas, Hamas is an organization whose fundamental charter demands exactly the opposite. Its goal is, and has always been, the eradication of the state of Israel and the purging of the Jewish population from all of Palestine, “from the river to the sea”.
No, Hamas is not “all Gazans”, never mind “all Palestinians”. But, for nearly two decades, Hamas has governed Gaza. The Israeli government has, to be fair, made that harder than it needed to be, sometimes difficult in the extreme. But, despite that, Hamas has managed to accumulate and expend immense resources on buying weapons and training soldiers and building fortified military bunkers beneath the protecting camouflage of hospitals and civilian neighborhoods. It has sponsored ongoing and persistent rocket attacks on Israeli cities. It has both encouraged and rewarded terrorists for attacks on Israeli bus stops and cafes and homes. It has waged unrelenting war on Israel.
And, in that time, there is very little evidence it has made an attempt to expend much, if any, of those immense resources on improving the daily lives of the Palestinian citizens for and to whom it has nominally been responsible.
Further, it has never given up on its goal of destroying Israel. Quite the contrary: its leaders keep re-stating that goal, over and over. Two months ago, they demonstrated their resolve in an orgy of killing, rape, and mutilation inflicted intentionally on an unsuspecting and unarmed civilian population. And, in the aftermath of that atrocity, they proclaimed their intention to repeat and amplify such atrocities whenever and wherever they could.
Israel has tried, however reluctantly and imperfectly (and it was mostly both), to live with Hamas as its neighbor. Hamas has now made fully clear that it has no intention ever of even bothering to try living with Israel as a neighbor.
And that means one or the other has to go.
The status quo is more October 7ths — or worse — again and again and on into the indefinite future. Israel cannot and will not accept living with such a continuing threat. Nor should it be expected to. No rational and moral government could.
So, to all those demanding an Israeli cease-fire: where are your corresponding demands on Hamas? Have I missed them? Where are the calls for Hamas to:
- Stop their ongoing war-crimes by immediately and unconditionally releasing all the hostages they are holding?
- Stop their ongoing war-crimes by immediately and unconditionally disentangling their military forces and equipment from the civilian populations and sanctuaries they are using as human shields?
- Surrender the war criminals who planned and carried out the rape, maiming, and butchering of civilians in an unprovoked attack to face justice, either in the Israeli courts or at the Hague?
- Turn control of governance in Gaza over to some organization whose goal is the well-being of the Gazan people rather than conquest and destruction of a neighboring country and its citizens?
And how do you plan to make sure all those things happen? I suspect asking nicely won’t be quite enough…
When I hear those demands, and some concrete and credible plans for achieving them, alongside demands for an Israeli cease-fire, I will take demands for a cease-fire seriously. When I hear the world declaring that it will, finally and by action, no longer excuse or tolerate Hamas’ barbarism, then I will treat calls for Israeli temperance as expressions of moral clarity rather than as excuses for moral surrender.
Until then, I will treat – we should all treat – calls for a unilateral Israeli cease-fire as what they appear to be: self-congratulatory fantasy.
Egypt has put forth a cease-fire proposal that at least acknowledges some of the demands on Hamas I listed above. It omits the 3rd one (surrender the war criminals to face justice) but that was always the least of them; and it stipulates that “Hamas would commit to a complete cessation of all military activities against Israel”, which could be (and probably will be) interpreted by Hamas as a short-term capitulation rather than a long-term commitment and is, at any rate, not really the same thing at all as disentangling its military forces from the civilian population so that we don’t fall right back into the current moral hazard of trying to dislodge Hamas’ military without an extreme risk of civilian casualties the next time Hamas decides to restart hostilities.
It’s also not clear whether there are teeth enough in it to make it stick (or, really, any teeth at all). And the latest proposal omits the last and most important demand — that Hamas agree to give up political control over Gaza — because Hamas rejected that out of hand when it was included in the original proposal (this one merely calls for some kind of open-ended and ill-defined “negotiation”). Hence, it seems to me like it falls into the category of “saying soothing words without actually demanding that anything much change.”
We’ll see how it ultimately plays out. I’m not hopeful…
Yesterday, Michelle Goldberg, at The NYT, published a column in which she urged Americans, from the President on down, to “Face Up to Israel’s Extremism”. She was reacting specifically to various Israeli cabinet ministers who seemed to advocate for an ethnic cleansing of Gaza.
She wasn’t exactly wrong…but I felt her argument was incomplete. I sent this response to her:
The irony is that the best way to stop supporting Israel’s extremism would be for the “International Community”, writ large, to overwhelmingly and unambiguously support Israel’s existence.
Israel’s extremists sell their program to a public that is terrified by the hostile forces all around them and convinced that the entire world is ready to let those forces win. They vote for their extremists because their extremists seem to be the only ones taking that existential dread seriously.
We — and, really, the entire world — encourage Israeli extremists by making Israeli citizens feel isolated and unsupported.
We would discourage Israeli extremists by demonstrating, consistently and by actions instead of merely by mealy-mouthed platitudes, that the major powers of the world have Israel’s back…
On the 8th of February (2024), Charles M. Blow, also at The NYT, weighed in with his own column lamenting that “…there has to be room for nuance.”
Again, he wasn’t exactly wrong…but I felt his argument was incomplete. I sent this response to him:
Yes, the situation is Gaza — not only currently but historically — is complicated and morally opaque.
And, yes, the fundamental problem that we have in discussing it and in formulating policy is that everyone seems to feel they must take one side or the other and, in doing so, dismiss the other side as somehow morally irrelevant.
<reference to my original article, above>: “So, to all those demanding an Israeli cease-fire: where are your corresponding demands on Hamas?…”
Yes, I want Israel to stop waging war on Gazans. But…I also want Hamas to stop waging war on Israel! And, when it comes down to it, the reality is that Hamas will never do that. As long as they are left in charge in Gaza, the status quo — constant low-level warfare occasionally erupting into high-level warfare — is going to continue on and on and into the indefinite future.
<reference to what I sent to Michelle Goldberg, above>
If we want Israel to stand down, then the rest of the world must stand up. It must make its own demands on Hamas: Stop the war against Israel! Period. That’s it.
Otherwise, this will never be resolved.
I end with this question: Does anyone really think that the Palestinians in Gaza would still be suffering under such severe (or any) Israeli border constraints — or would not have an effective-if-informal “state” of their own — if they had spent the last 20 years (since Israel turned sovereignty over to them) building a prosperous and peaceful society in Gaza that accepted living side-by-side with Israel?
Is it Israel’s fault that, instead, they chose to spend that 20 years building a militarized and totalitarian state that consistently launched military attacks on its neighbor?
Whose fault is it, then, that the Palestinians in Gaza have been living in such misery for decades and are now under such military threat?
© Copyright 2023, Augustus P. Lowell