There Are Only Two Sides in This Conflict: Moderates and Extremists

It’s too easy to point fingers and become extremely defensive, to stick to your own and blame the other.

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Ahinoam Nini and Mira Awad.
Ahinoam Nini and Mira Awad.Credit: Bloomberg

Greetings from our corner of the Middle East, where all hell has broken loose.

Terrorized, anguished, depressed, frustrated, angry – each emotional tidal wave competes with the other for dominion over my heart and head, but none prevail, and I am drowning in the boiling ocean that is all of them combined.

There is a missile alert every hour somewhere near my home. In Tel Aviv, it’s worse. My son and I stopped our car in the middle of the street one day late last month and rushed to a nearby corridor as the piercing siren went off. A few minutes later we heard three loud booms that shook the walls.

In the south of Israel it’s unbearable. People’s lives have come to a standstill, their livelihood crushed; they spend most of their time in bomb shelters. Many of the missiles are intercepted by our defense system, but not all. Every civilian is a target and our children are traumatized – the emotional scars irreversible.

Then there are the tunnels dug underground, reaching the very doorstep of some of the kibbutzim on the Gaza border. In the dark dungeons of my nightmares I imagine what they are intended for: smuggling, kidnapping, torturing, murdering.

Our soldiers are on the front line. These are our sons, the sons of our friends and neighbors, the young men and women of this country who are called to duty by their government. And now we have coffins draped in the flag, tear-drenched funerals, shattered lives, Kaddish – the familiar devastating ritual.

And the Gazans. Oh Lord, the Gazans – what could possibly be more miserable and horrible than what these people have to endure? Will their destiny be forever to suffer under the hands of cruel tyrants? The pictures of the bleeding children, the crying mothers in bloodstained clothes, the rubble and devastation, the terror in their eyes, five minutes at best to get out of your house, to run for your life because the bombs are falling. No shelter.

With the Taliban tactics of Hamas on one side and the F-16 bombers of the Israeli army on the other, these people are clamped like walnuts, crushed by the thick metal jaws of blindness and stupidity. The death toll is rising and rising – for God’s sake, how much longer will this go on?

The large majority of Hamas people are extremists – they are jihadists, they are dangerous, they aim to kill every Jew including me and my children. They do not recognize Israel, they plan to turn all Gazans into shahids – martyrs – by using them as human shields. We’ve heard Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh and his henchmen, and it’s probably all true, as far as there is any truth at all.

But is every man, woman and child to blame?

I listen to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett speaking on CNN, coolly explaining how Hamas is a terrorist group and we have every right to defend ourselves, which we do, granted. I wait, patiently, for his sincere expression of sorrow and regret at the loss of innocent life, but none such gesture comes. And I say to myself: Have you forgotten that you represent an entire nation? Bow your head in shame.

For you have brought about the deaths of innocent people — men, women and so many children — even if you did not intend to. And yes, Hamas leaders continue with their horrible blood-soaked rhetoric, their cruel bravura at the expense of the miserable Gazans.

Arrogance and self-righteousness

They do not hide their sinister plan. They intend to achieve the deaths of innocent people. No doubt there is a special place in hell for them all, and history is full of them. But that does not release us from the obligation to behave as human beings, unless our aim is to metamorphose into the terrifying spitting image of our gravest enemies.

We, Palestinians and Israelis alike, have “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to make peace.” We have created this mess with our own two hands, and we are paying the awful price for our arrogance and deaf self-righteousness.

It is easy to point fingers and become extremely defensive when bombs are falling – each side huddles in its own corner, sticking with its own, blaming the other.

My heart goes out to the families of the victims wherever they are. I am happy to have a strong Israeli army to defend me against those who clearly state that their aim is to slit my children’s throats. But I do not want to use my sorrow and fear as a shield against human empathy and clear thinking. On the contrary, I want to do the opposite.

I want to stand in the middle of the rink and speak my truth.

There are only two sides, and they are not Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. They are moderates and the extremists. I belong to the moderates, wherever they are. They are my camp – and this camp needs to unite. I have nothing whatsoever in common with the Jewish extremists who burn children alive, poison wells, uproot trees, throw stones at schoolchildren and are motivated by brainwashed hate and acute self-righteousness.

I want to bury my head in my hands and disappear – to the moon if possible – when I read the sermons of rabbis Yitzhak Ginsburg and Dov Lior romanticizing death and killing in the name of God as did Baruch Goldstein, their sacred martyr, who 20 years ago murdered 29 Arabs in cold blood as they were praying. When I read the incredible words of racism and hate written by some of my fellow Israelis, the cries of joy when Palestinian children are killed, the contempt for human life, the fact that we share the same passport and religion means nothing to me. I want nothing to do with these people.

Violent radical Islamists terrify me. The pictures of how they torture and behead, kill and destroy – their indescribable cruelty and abominable treatment of women are horrifying to say the very least. But their wrath is directed not only against me but against the moderates in their own society, thus making us all brothers in arms.

Just as I urge the Arab moderates wherever they are to do everything in their power to shun extremism, I have no intention of blinding my eyes to the responsibility that must be taken by my side for the fiasco that is now occurring. Radical Islam is a dangerous phenomenon that must be dealt with not only by Israel, but by the entire world. And in the Muslim world there are more moderate voices; there are partners for dialogue. Have we done everything in our power to reach out to them?
The answer is no.

Foolishly weakening Abbas

Contrary to its once-upon-a-time “two-state” declarations, the present government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has done everything in its power to suppress any attempts at reconciliation. It has weakened and insulted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), leader of the more moderate PLO, who has stated again and again that he is interested in peace. I heard him say it myself, firsthand, after having been invited by the PA to Ramallah with many other Israeli peace activists, for a lecture and Q&A session with the prime minister (an incredible act in itself when you think that just a decade ago Israelis could go to jail for having any contact whatsoever with Fatah).

When talks seemed to be somehow progressing, it was demanded that Abu Mazen recognize Israel as the Jewish state, though agreements with Egypt and Jordan had been made with no such demand. When he replied that the PA recognized the sovereignty of the State of Israel, but that any other titles were an internal Israeli issue, he was accused of noncompliance.

When Abu Mazen made statements about the Holocaust, calling it the greatest tragedy in human history, Netanyahu belittled him. The government has disregarded agreements it signed with the PA, refusing at a whim to release prisoners it had agreed to release, preferring to continue the outrageous and infuriating construction in the settlements as if no talks were being held. It’s like slapping someone in the face again and again while innocently saying: “Let’s make peace! Don’t you see how much I want peace? Why aren’t you cooperating?”

And what of the Arab League’s peace initiative? Why has it been consistently and recurrently ignored by the Israeli government? Just recently, in an unprecedented act of good faith, a very prominent official from Saudi Arabia wrote an article in an Israeli newspaper expressing his wish for peace. It went virtually unnoticed. (For this, the media too are to blame in their biased choices of what is deemed fit to print and fit to emphasize. They have an important and destructive role in the “no partner for peace” folly.)

I wonder, what crazed messianic forces blind the eyes of these politicians and their constituency? What biblical Joshua syndrome? What are they thinking to themselves, that they will slowly but surely dominate the occupied territories until there is no way to create the Palestinian state? What of all the Palestinians who live there, their aspirations, their history? What of their well-being, dreams, hopes and future? Will they simply live happily ever after as second-class citizens, or maybe convert en masse to Judaism? What is the plan?

There is no plan, there is no vision that is morally compatible with universal values, intent on procuring coexistence – or at least none that is being articulated coherently to our people. In its place we are being fed constant fear and paranoia, fanning the flames of nationalism, xenophobia and racism. De facto, these policies are deteriorating Israel into an ideological and strategic point of no return.

10-year cease-fire

Only dialogue from a place of respect and empathy can save us. Only a concerted effort to strengthen the moderates and thus marginalize, as much as possible, the radicals can afford us some hope.

As much as we in Israel justifiably despise Hamas, it does not look like this group is going anywhere. Have we seriously considered the conditions it poses for a cease-fire? Many of them make sense. Why not attempt to alleviate the suffering of the Gazans, enable them to flourish economically, return dignity to their lives and gain a 10-year cease-fire? Ten years is a long time.

Young minds can be opened; even modest prosperity can be the catalyst of change. Why assume automatically that these years will be used only to strengthen Hamas’ military power? The conditions include international supervision. Maybe the years will create a reality in which Hamas, with a younger generation of leaders who see a different horizon, can be drawn into the political circle in a way that will finally enable dialogue?

I ask myself: Why don’t we surprise ourselves. Netanyahu, you are known to be a clever man: Why not go 180 degrees, change the rules of the game, think out of the box? Welcome Abu Mazen, strengthen him in the eyes of his people, think up creative solutions with him, stop the building in the settlements, support the unity government, open Gaza and enable commerce with international supervision, embrace the Palestinians’ aspirations alongside our own, welcome international intervention, especially by the Arab League, and gain a real ally against the waves of extremism. Checkmate.

Have we really made every effort to do all this before sending our young men off to die? Sadly, we have not. No one is dismantling the Israeli army anytime soon, and it should remain strong. But why are we so stubbornly refusing to take this calculated risk and instead choosing to sacrifice our children? It is beyond my comprehension.

In the biblical story of Akedat Yitzhak, Abraham, father of Judaism and Islam, was commanded by God to sacrifice his son. Finally God intervened and saved the boy. Where is God now? Has he been stunned to numbness by the abomination of his sacred teachings by the extremists on both sides?

If we refuse to recognize each other’s rights and embrace our obligations, if we each continue to cling to our own narratives with contempt and disregard for that of the other, if we again and again choose swords over words, if we sanctify land and not the lives of our children, we shall soon be forced to seek a colony on the moon, for our land will be so drenched in blood and so cluttered with tombstones there will be nothing left for the living.

I wrote the following words and sang them with my friend Mira Awad. They are truer today than ever:

“When I cry, I cry for both of us,
My pain has no name.
When I cry, I cry to the merciless sky and say:
There must be another way.”

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