Editorial / October 26, 2023

A Cease-Fire in Gaza Is Just the First Step

We must end the slaughter. And then comes the hard part.

D.D. Guttenplan for The Nation
Demonstrators protest the bombing on Gaza on October 20, 2023. (Ivan Romano / Getty)

Condemning the slaughter should be the easy part. Yet in the hours and days after Hamas carried out its October 7 attack, killing hundreds of Israeli civilians—including babies and young children—some on the left seemed reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone denounce, these murders.

And when Israel responded with murder from the air, killing thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza—including babies and young children—most Americans in influential institutions, from mainline Jewish organizations to establishment media to the vast majority of Democratic and Republican elected officials, were quick to justify the carnage. President Joe Biden flew to Jerusalem to embrace the architect of this slaughter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even attending a meeting of Israel’s “war cabinet.” Then he flew home and gave a speech from the Oval Office calling for billions of dollars in new weapons to “sharpen Israel’s qualitative military edge.”

Appearances matter. And the images of Biden and Netanyahu embracing mean that America, too, now owns Israel’s war in Gaza.

Policy matters. The fact that the Biden administration continued Donald Trump’s criminally stupid attempt to bypass negotiations with the Palestinians, encouraging Israel to pursue a separate peace with the Saudi dictatorship that Biden once had promised to treat as a pariah state, means that America, too, has the blood of those murdered by Hamas on its hands. Because for all our horror at Hamas’s tactics, and despite the terrible price already paid by Palestinian women, children, and elderly people in Gaza—not to mention the predictable result when Israel’s “sharper edge” meets civilian flesh in the weeks ahead—no one can deny that we are all talking about Palestine now.

History matters. Not just the history of Palestinian dispossession, but also the long decline from the 1991 Madrid Conference—a genuinely international attempt, cochaired by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, to resolve the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians, bringing all the parties together for the first time—to the US-brokered 1993 Oslo Accords, with its fraudulent promise of Palestinian statehood, to Bill Clinton’s Camp David talks in 2000, the collapse of which marked the last sustained US engagement with the Palestinians. The recriminations in the wake of that failure led to the enduring myth that the Palestinians had refused a “generous offer” and the rapid decomposition of the ill-named “peace process”—while the unchecked spread of illegal Israeli settlements under both Labor and Likud governments pushed any viable Palestinian state farther and farther out of reach.

Penned in by Israel and Egypt, deprived not just of clean water, adequate food, electricity, and medical supplies but of any hope for improvement, or even so much as a gesture of concern from the US government, the 2.3 million inhabitants of Gaza—almost half of them children (as NPR recently explained, “Many Palestinians simply don’t get the chance to grow old”)—had every reason to feel desperate. And to wonder why the 526 children killed in Gaza by Israeli security forces in 2014 were so quickly forgotten.

No American progressive would want to live under Hamas rule. But then none of us would want to live in Gaza under Israeli blockade, either. And while it is easy to condemn Hamas as reactionary theocrats, much the same can be said of Netanyahu’s coalition partners.

Language matters too. When Biden describes Hamas as a “terrorist group,” he isn’t wrong—the clear aim of the killings on October 7 was to terrify Israelis, to make it impossible for them to feel safe in their beds. But then what label do we use to describe the Israel Defense Forces, which had brought death and destruction to Gaza on a far greater scale before October 7—and is now working assiduously, with American aid, to increase the body count?

Terrorism is a tactic, not a strategy—the tactic of the desperate, who lack the dignity of a state or an army. And if we tell ourselves that terrorism never prospers, that’s only because when it does, or when a state does it, none dare call it terrorism, favoring instead labels like “counterinsurgency” or “shock and awe.” Or we call it Zionism—which, before it became respectable, didn’t always scruple over the use of bombings and assassinations to achieve its goals. Referring, as Biden did, to “the tragic loss of Palestinian life” (in the passive voice) while condemning the “horrific horror of the attack by Hamas” demonstrates not moral courage but its opposite.

Though absent in the White House, real courage was shown by the demonstrators there and on Capitol Hill—Jewish, Palestinian, and others—demanding not fresh blood but an immediate cease-fire. Ending the slaughter being done in our name—and paid for by our taxes—is an essential first step.

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Then comes the hard part. And here some inconvenient truths must be acknowledged. The first is that those who make nonviolent resistance impossible make violence inevitable. The criminalization of dissent—not just in Israel and the West Bank but in the US, where the nonviolent movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) has been banned from college campuses and outlawed by legislatures in 35 states—entrenches an unjust and unsustainable oppression.

However, the advocates of BDS can be faulted, too, for not always having been clear or candid on whether their aim is to end Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in 1967 and gain full civil rights for Palestinians on either side of the Green Line (goals all people of conscience should support)—or to abolish the state of Israel altogether. The latter is hardly something most Jews—who rightly wonder why, of all the ethno-states in the world, only theirs is targeted for elimination—could ever endorse.

Israel, though it often behaves like a settler colonial regime, is not like France in Algeria. No amount of violence will induce most Israelis to quit (as Gandhi urged the British to “quit India”), for the simple reason that, like most Palestinians, they have no other country to go to. And though theology is no substitute for politics, the Jewish yearning for Zion dates back centuries, not decades.

Both peoples will have to find a way to share the land—in peace, yes, but also with justice. In the long run, that is the only solution to the unending cycles of violence. For that to ever happen, the left in particular must hold fast to certain values:

No human being should be threatened with “transfer” out of his or her home or land; no human being should be discriminated against because he or she is not of an X or a Y religion; no human being should be stripped of his or her land, national identity, or culture, no matter the cause.

Those principles, set down in 1979 by Edward Said, remain essential for anyone seeking to address the Question of Palestine. The path to peace and justice may seem impossible to detect right now. But there is, as Israelis like to say, no alternative.

D.D. Guttenplan

D.D. Guttenplan is editor of The Nation.

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