War creates a world without empathy. Those who have empathy cannot, as did Palestinian gunman Alaa Hisham Abu Dheim, coldly murder students in a Jerusalem library. Those who have empathy cannot drop tons of iron fragmentation bombs on crowded Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, killing more than 120 Palestinians in a week, of whom one in five were children and more than half were civilians. Those who have empathy do not, as Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai did, thunder at the Palestinians that they face a shoah, meaning catastrophe or holocaust. Those with empathy are unable to rejoice, as many leaders of Hamas did, over slaughter, as if the murder of the other's innocents is justified by the murder of your innocents.
We live in a world, at home and in the Middle East, hardened and distorted by hate. We communicate in the language of fear and violence. Human beings are no longer viewed as human beings. They are no longer endowed in our eyes, or the eyes of those who oppose us, with human qualities. They do no love, grieve, suffer, laugh or weep. They represent cold abstractions of evil. The death-for-death means we communicate by producing corpses. And we are all guilty, Americans, Palestinians, Iraqis and Israelis. But we are not all guilty equally.
Israel and the United States bear the responsibility for a world that has unleashed twisted killers such as Abu Dheim. It is the decades of repression in Gaza, as well as the callous occupation in Iraq, that has bequeathed to us a new generation of jihadists and gunmen who walk into yeshivas and spray automatic fire at people bent over books. For as the poet W.H. Auden pointed out:
I and the public know What all schoolchildren learn, Those to whom evil is done Do evil in return.
The long, slow drip of collective humiliation and abuse, along with the tiny and large indignities that go into transforming human beings into fanatics, is rarely understood by those on the outside. It ticks away like a clock until it suddenly explodes in our face. Because we do not know where it came from, it strikes us as incomprehensible, irrational, the product of a demented form of humanity. These killers, however, are not formed by the Quran or Islam or a culture that is morally inferior to our own. They are formed by a 40-year occupation, by the continued expansion of Jewish settlements, by the refusal to allow the return of expelled refugees, by the use of fighter jets to bomb squalid refugee camps and by an Israeli siege of Gaza that has blocked fuel, electricity and essential supplies and created a humanitarian crisis for 1.5 million Palestinians. It is what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians, what we have done to the Iraqis, that has brought us to this impasse. We unleashed this violence and only we can end it.
Hamas was a nonentity, a tiny group of radicals who wielded no influence and had little following when in 1988 I first reported from Gaza. But the steady drumbeat of Israeli repression and violence, aided by the corruption and incompetence of Yasser Arafat, led to Hamas' slow rise to supplant Arafat's Fatah party. By 2006 Hamas was elected to power. This election, by all accounts free and fair, saw Jerusalem and Washington begin a covert effort to overthrow Hamas, according to documents obtained by Vanity Fair and the Guardian. The Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan was, according to these documents, given cash, weapons and assistance through Egypt and Jordan to start a Palestinian civil war. Hamas stepped in to thwart the attempted coup. It drove Dahlan and Fatah out of Gaza. The current bifurcation of Palestinian territories, with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah in control of the West Bank, began.
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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, unable to break Hamas with the siege and frustrated by the Palestinians' spontaneous rupture of the barricades that separate the Gaza Strip from Egypt, is trying to pound Gaza into submission. During the past three months of unrelenting Israeli strikes, over 300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have died in Israeli attacks. The strikes have done nothing, however, to halt the rocket attacks on Israeli towns or end Hamas rule.
Amnesty International, CARE International and Oxfam UK, along with other humanitarian aid groups, in a report last week said that living conditions in Gaza are at their worst point since Israel occupied the strip in 1967. The report estimated that 80 percent of the residents of Gaza are now dependent on food aid, compared with 63 percent two years ago. It noted that unemployment is about 40 percent among the general population and 70 percent in the private sector. The aid groups document power cuts to hospitals of as long as 12 hours a day, 50 million liters of sewage pouring into the sea daily, and water and sewage systems on the brink of collapse. The groups have called on the European Union and the British government to pressure Israel to open border crossings and begin negotiations with Hamas.
Washington and Jerusalem have little interest in a peaceful settlement. They are blinded by their own military prowess. They do not grasp that a continuation of violence and a tightening of the siege will spur more desperate and embittered young men and women to acts of vengeance. The only route left is to hear the cries of all the victims, Israeli and Palestinian, to recapture empathy. Hamas' offer to negotiate a truce, an offer backed by 64 percent of Israelis, is the only escape route. There is no option other than to finally give the Palestinians control over their lives and land. It is the only option that will, as well, save us in Iraq. The occupation of Palestinian territory, like the occupation of Iraq, is illegal, increasingly violent and counterproductive.
I was in Gaza in 1993 after the Oslo peace accord was signed. It was as if, after years of suffocation, Palestinians and Israelis could breathe. But Oslo, in the hands of former Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, was strangled and thwarted. Peace eludes us in Palestine, Israel and Iraq not because people do not want peace but because we are governed by moral and intellectual trolls.
The Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by the Fatah party, was once considered a terrorist organization. It was illegal for an Israeli to have contact with the PLO. Those Israelis who called for negotiations with the Palestinian group were attacked and vilified. The Israeli government, however, under the pragmatism of Yitzhak Rabin, violated its own ban and began secret negotiations with the PLO. These negotiations led to the Oslo peace agreement. Fatah, today, is touted by Jerusalem and Washington as an ally in the war against Hamas and a partner for peace.
The dynamics of power have changed. They will change again. Hamas is a reality that, however distasteful, is not going to go away. Any peace deal reached without Hamas is doomed to fail. The only question left is how many more people are going to die needlessly in Israel, in Palestine and in Iraq before Israeli and American leaders begin to deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.