More than three weeks after Israel launched its latest assault on the Gaza Strip, and with no durable truce on the horizon, the situation in Israel/Palestine has descended into new and uncharted horrors. What began as a brute incursion by Israel, accompanied by a hail of Hamas rockets, has exploded into something shockingly worse: a bloodletting that, as The Nation went to press, had killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and fifty-six Israelis and pummeled Gaza into a landscape of human despair. Meanwhile in the West Bank, where thousands of Palestinians have poured into the streets for the largest protests in years, Israeli soldiers have responded with live ammunition; ten Palestinians were killed in a four-day period. And in Israel, where an empowered far right is ascendant, nationalist mobs have attacked Palestinian and Jewish antiwar protesters on several occasions.
The widening gyre of violence is terrible news for the entire region, but for none more than the 1.8 million Palestinians trapped in the battered sliver of the Gaza Strip. There, the “precision” bombs of the Israeli military have obliterated entire families of twenty and thirty; young boys have been blown apart while playing soccer on a beach; and whole neighborhoods have been leveled by the overwhelming Israeli firepower. The United Nations has estimated that as many as 74 percent of the Palestinians killed in Gaza have been civilians, with an average of one child dying every hour during one particularly bloody two-day stretch. With the borders closed and even UN schools under attack, there is simply no place for Palestinians to flee to.
“They told us it was safe,” Hussein Shinbari told Nation contributor Sharif Abdel Kouddous after the UN school in Beit Hanoun, where Shinbari’s family had taken shelter, was struck by a blast that killed sixteen people. (Israel has denied responsibility for the fatal strike.) Shinbari was the only one of his family who survived.
In the face of such horrors, the world’s increasingly alarmed top diplomats have taken to hopscotching the globe, hoping to patch together a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, as they have during the past two Gaza conflicts, in 2008–09 and 2012. “In the name of humanity, the violence must stop,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon implored on July 28. Yet with nothing but a string of failures to show for their efforts—most notably, a proposal hammered out by Secretary of State John Kerry for a seven-day trial truce, during which both sides could work out a permanent one—the situation in Gaza continues to unravel.
“We must be prepared for a prolonged campaign,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced just days after rejecting the Kerry effort.
There are any number of reasons these overtures have failed, leaving Kerry and his international cast of diplomats flailing in the wings. Certainly the leaders of both Israel and Hamas are dug in—caught in fantasies of regime change, collective punishment and security, in the case of Israel; survival, resistance and revenge, in the case of Hamas. That the countries negotiating on their behalf barely get along themselves has not helped matters. As The New York Times summarized: “The United States does not deal directly with Hamas. And the countries with the closest ties, Qatar and Turkey, have fraught relations with Egypt, whose cease-fire plan has provided the broad framework for Mr. Kerry’s efforts.”
Just as debilitating has been the skewed nature of the cease-fire process itself: the attempt to frame a flagrantly asymmetrical conflict between occupier and occupied as a fight between equals, and, further, to place a highly biased superpower in the position of lead broker. Even now, as Israel has deployed its powerful military to flatten parts of Gaza, American leaders, from the president to Congress, have lined up to affirm Israel’s “right to self-defense.” And in a blunt display of support for impunity, the United States provided the sole opposing vote on a UN Human Rights Commission resolution to investigate violations of international law—including possible war crimes— committed in the occupied Palestinian territories during the present onslaught.
Recently there have been signs of a shift, however fractional, at the highest levels, as Kerry and, to a lesser degree, President Obama have expressed frustration with Israel’s shattering disregard for Palestinian lives. “Palestinians need to live with dignity, with some freedom, with goods that can come in and out,” Kerry said in a statement that presaged the draft cease-fire he submitted on July 25. That draft enraged Israeli leaders, who refuse to even contemplate lifting the seven-year siege of Gaza. But as Kerry flew home with the tailwinds of defeat at his back, it was clear that the United States is a long way from using the most powerful arrows in its quiver: the threat of withdrawing all or part of its annual $3 billion in military aid to Israel.
The failure of the cease-fire proposals have left a void where impunity continues to flourish. Yet the diverse and humane currents of international civil society have been responding, issuing demands Washington is too timid to make. This includes the sixty-four Nobel laureates and public figures—among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Noam Chomsky—who have called for an international arms embargo on Israel. They include legal experts like John Dugard, Noura Erakat and Peter Weiss, who have demanded an end to Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza and the beginning of “procedures to hold accountable all those responsible for violations of international law.” They include Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which has been tireless in defending Palestinian rights, and J Street, which is pressing for an end to the siege of Gaza. And they include the Palestinian civil society groups that have been steadfast in calling for nonviolent resistance by means of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Together these actors are sketching out a blueprint, at once necessary and aspirational, to end the crisis. Although they may not agree on every point, their calls form the outline of a just resolution: an immediate end to Israel’s siege and bombing of Gaza; cease-fire monitors to hold the parties accountable; investigations into war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas; and an end to the great sin of the occupation.
All of these recommendations face massive obstacles, and they will never happen until Israel, the United States and Hamas are pushed to enact them. But as the cycle of impunity continues, the demands of civil society are the Palestinians’—and Israelis’—best hope.