Commentary: Right, wrong blurs in the Middle East
July 24, 2014 10:09 AM
by NICHOLAS KRISTOF

With Israeli troops again invading Gaza and the death toll rising, some of the rhetoric from partisans on each side is oddly parallel. Maybe it’s time to correct a few common misconceptions among the salvos flying back and forth.

• This is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise and we had no choice but to act.

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.

Just because the underlying conflict is between two peoples who each have plenty of right, that’s not to say that there are no villains. Hamas is violent, not only toward Israel, but toward its own people, and, in contrast to Israel, it doesn’t seem to try to minimize civilian casualties — its own or Israel’s. Hamas is not as corrupt as the Palestinian Authority, but it is far more repressive, and my impression from my visits to Gaza is that it’s also unpopular at home. Hamas sometimes seems to have more support on certain college campuses in America or Europe than within Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Israeli right undermines the best partner for peace Israel has had, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel’s settlements are a gift to Palestinian extremism.

These days, in both Gaza and Jerusalem, hawks are in charge, and they empower each other.

• The other side understands only force. What else can we do but fight back when we are attacked?

Israeli leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, think that the way to protect their citizens is to invade Gaza and blow up tunnels — and, if Gazan civilians and children die, that’s sad but inevitable.

And some Gazans think that they’re already in an open-air prison, suffocating under the Israeli embargo, and the only way to achieve change is fire rockets — and if some Israeli children die, that’s too bad, but 100 times as many Palestinian children are dying already.

In fact, we’ve seen this movie before: Israel responded to aggression by invading Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008; each time, hawks cheered. Yet each invasion in retrospect accomplished at best temporary military gains while killing large numbers of innocents; they didn’t solve any problems.

Likewise, Palestinian militancy has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people. If Palestinians instead turned more to huge Gandhi-style nonviolence resistance campaigns, the resulting videos would reverberate around the world and Palestine would achieve statehood and freedom.

Some Palestinians understand this and are trying this strategy, but too many define nonviolence to include rock-throwing. No, that doesn’t cut it.

• What would you do if your family were in Gaza/Israel, at risk of being killed. You wouldn’t just sit back and sing “Kumbaya,” would you?

If any of us were in southern Israel, frightened sick by rockets being fired by Hamas, we, too, might cheer an invasion of Gaza. And if any of us were in Gaza, strangled by the embargo and losing relatives to Israeli airstrikes, we, too, might cheer the launch of rockets on Tel Aviv. That’s human nature.

That’s why we need to de-escalate, starting with a cease-fire that includes an end to Hamas rocket attacks and a withdrawal from Gaza by Israel.

For Israel, this is a chance to use diplomacy to achieve what gunpowder won’t: the marginalization of Hamas. Israel might suggest an internationally supervised election in Gaza with the promise that the return of control to the Palestinian Authority would mean an end to the economic embargo.

Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.

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