War Must Never Be Inevitable, Even Between Israel and Hamas

After the massive escalation in Gaza and southern Israel on Monday, those of us concerned about the region are holding our breaths, hoping for a return to negotiating a cease-fire – even if fragile – that was close to being achieved last week.

Some 300 rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel Monday, wounding eight Israelis, one of whom seriously. The Israeli army responded with a series of airstrikes in which three Palestinians were killed.

Israeli security forces and firefighters gather near a bus set ablaze after being hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, at the Israel-Gaza border near the kibbutz of Kfar Aza. November 12, 2018AFP

After the botched intelligence operation Sunday that left one Israeli and seven Palestinians dead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both asserted that there is no political solution for Gaza, and declared his interest in avoiding escalation, even as some members of his coalition press for a military response.

We already know how the alternative ends: massive casualties among Palestinians in Gaza, Israeli soldiers killed or wounded, Israeli civilians on the border running for shelter and suffering injury or death, and ultimately, a shaky and temporary ceasefire.

One religious voice from Israel’s early years offers a different, and crucial model.

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Four decades ago, as Israel pursued a peace treaty with Egypt, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy, then the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, wrote:

We have great doubts regarding this peace agreement. That is to say – it is possible that it will be temporary until the Arab world gathers the strength necessary for another round. But it’s also necessary to remember that it’s possible that it will continue for a long time, together with the achievement of peace with other moderate Arab countries, in one way or another…

Therefore, it is incumbent on us, without considering their ultimate intentions, to cultivate this peace, and to do whatever is in our power that it should develop and set down roots, out of hope and faith that time will heal all wounds, and that…there will arise a generation born into peace, that will not hear the cries of war. 

This teshuva (legal position) represented a courageous act of religious leadership at a time when most of the religious right opposed the agreement, particularly because it necessitated evacuating Israeli settlements in the Sinai.

Today, when escalation would no doubt involve Hamas and Islamic Jihad firing rockets at Israeli civilians, while Israel carries out massive bombing campaigns that will likely result in significant Palestinian deaths, such leadership is desperately needed.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy (1924-1998), chief rabbi of Tel Aviv 1973 – 1998Wikipedia

Israel and Hamas have already demonstrated their ability to reach ceasefires, at least for the short term, including the most recent attempt to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But pursuing a long-term agreement will require both Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership to summon the strength to resist pressure from their extremist bases and to take a risk that may not guarantee a different ending to the story. 

Halevy threw his support behind a peace treaty, knowing full well that it might fail. But he also knew that the alternative would be far more likely to result in insufferable losses. And so he recommended the leap of faith necessary to attempt the unknown. 

This posture is sorely missing among the political and religious leadership in Israel today who too often succumb to impotence, and resignation to the inevitability of war.

That’s defeatism, not Zionism. From its conception, Zionism has been about taking Jewish history into our own hands, rather than allowing others to determine that history. By establishing a Jewish state, the early Zionist leaders hoped to liberate Jews from relying on the whims and mercies of foreign governments.

Zionism has always meant doing the impossible – whether that meant creating a Jewish state in our historic homeland for the first time in nearly 2000 years, achieving a peace treaty with Egypt that has lasted nearly 40 years, or signing a peace agreement with Jordan that has lasted almost 25. Israeli leaders who claim to be powerless in the face of a threat from a weaker non-state actor violate the very spirit in which Israel was founded.

A picture taken from the Gaza Strip on November 12, 2018 shows missiles being launched toward IsraelAFP

There is no doubt that Hamas bears significant blame for ongoing flare ups at the border. Firing rockets into civilian areas constitutes a human rights violation. Israeli communities on the border should not have to live in fear of rocket fire or arson, or need to race their children into shelters night after night. And Hamas’s rejection of Israel’s legitimacy cannot inspire confidence.

And yet, Hamas has, in the past, demonstrated the willingness and ability to maintain a ceasefire. Given the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza, their leadership knows that the population cannot withstand increased hostilities.

Nor can Israel absolve itself of responsibility by pointing to Hamas’s misdeeds. Despite the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza a decade ago, Israel maintains control over both sides of Gaza’s borders, its fishing zone, its imports and exports, its population registry, and movement in and out of the region. Israel’s extensive bombing of both military and civilian structures during the 2014 war has left enduring damage to infrastructure, as well as a population traumatized by death and injury.

A picture taken on November 12, 2018 shows flares dropped by Israeli warplanes above Gaza cityAFP

Avoiding a descent into violence will require Israeli political leaders to loosen the closure of Gaza, provide humanitarian relief, and take the leap of faith necessary to negotiate a long-term agreement with sworn enemies. In Halevy’s words, "It’s possible that [this agreement] will be temporary…but it’s possible that it will continue for a long time."

HaLevy frames his teshuva with an exposition of Psalms 29:11, "God gives strength to God’s people; God blesses God’s people with peace."

He writes: "Just as for a generation, we carried out wars with strength and might, God will bless us now that we will also know how to make peace. Because it’s very possible that it’s easier to fight than to achieve true peace. And for this reason, we need the blessing ‘God blesses God’s people with peace.’" (Aseh L’kha Rav 4:1)

Only days ago, the leadership of both Israel and Hamas seemed interested in avoiding a deadly escalation of violence. Continuing to reject pressure to do so, and instead to pursue a long-term agreement is not only the most courageous and religious move – it is also the only possibility for saving lives on both sides.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah. Twitter: @rabbijilljacobs