by W.D. Ehrhart
The October attack on Israel by Hamas came as a shocking surprise and will have major repercussions no one can yet foresee. It reminds me of the Vietnamese Tet Offense in January 1968. Just as Israel has been caught off guard, so too had the U.S. The big difference is that the Tet Offensive took place on Vietnamese soil, not American. This attack is against Israel itself.
And one can hardly imagine a more ruthless or brutal attack. I gather that Hamas fighters descended from the air on a rock concert largely attended by young people, indiscriminately shooting and killing unarmed civilians, and going house to house murdering whoever they happened to find.
There can be no justification—none—for targeting defenseless human beings. I don’t care if they’re Israelis, Palestinians, Vietnamese, Ukrainians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Nigerians, Yemenis, or name anyone else you care to who has been caught up in the jaws of war.
But is this latest outbreak of violence really a surprise? I turned 75 recently. There are Palestinians my age who have never lived in anything but a cinderblock hut in a crowded refugee camp for people displaced by the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent fighting.
The history of Jewish-Palestinian relations goes back deep into history. The latest chapter began not in 1948, but with the founding of the Zionist movement in the 19th century. To venture an attempt to determine who is right and who is wrong, to decide who has the right to the land that both Israelis and Palestinians claim is to wander into an emotional minefield guaranteed to leave one battered and bruised and missing a figurative limb or two.
So I’m not going there. I am not going to try to argue that one side is right and one side is wrong. But I am going to argue that there are ordinary—indeed, innocent—Palestinians as old as me who have never lived anywhere but in poverty, who have never had freedom of movement, who have never had political rights, let alone civil or even human rights as most of us understand them.
There are people who have lived under military occupation for over half a century, who have been subjected to long waits and bodily searches traveling to and from their jobs and schools, who have been subjected to helicopter rocket attacks and jet fighter attacks for nothing they themselves have done. There are farmers who cannot tend their crops because of physical barriers constructed between their homes and fields.
Even a cursory study of history reveals that if you suppress and oppress a people by force of arms, sooner or later they will rise up against you. It may take five years or fifty years or five hundred years. One thinks of the English in Ireland or the French in Indochina or the Soviets in Eastern Europe. Historical analogies never entirely hold up under scrutiny, but an iron fist always sooner or later rusts.
I gather that Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to kill every last member of Hamas. If he thinks that will solve the problem, good luck to him. And meanwhile, every innocent Palestinian the Israelis kill only provokes another Palestinian to set innocence aside.
You can—and some of you will—accuse me of being anti-semitic. But you will be wrong on two counts. Firstly because Arabs are just as semitic as Jews. And secondly because I am not anti-Jewish. Indeed, Israeli Jews have the right to live without fear of violence. In case you did not fully absorb that, let me say it again: every Israeli Jew has the absolute right to live without fear of violence.
But that is a two-way street, a tit for tat; it works both ways. Every time Hamas fires missiles into Israel, Israel responds with bombs and tanks and bulldozers. This time, Hamas has managed to inflict damage on a much larger scale, and once again Israel is responding with commensurately overwhelming force. And once again, innocent civilians on both sides are dying.
After this latest war broke out, a dear friend of mine who is Jewish, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War who lived in Israel in the early 1970s, sent me this note: “Too many memories of ‘73. Too many memories of the dead on Golan then. Too many memories of the dead kids I saw carried out of a schoolhouse in ‘74. Family and friends I’ve been in touch with have not been directly touched, but have kids in the army, The scenes of the hostages being taken and the 260 kids slaughtered at the music festival are unbearable. Peace is the only answer, one of my Israeli friends texted me. He’s right but at this moment all I feel is grief and rage, at Hamas, at Netanyahu.”
I wrote back reminding him of what our mutual friend the journalist Gloria Emerson said way back after the First Intifada: “The Israelis have only two real choices: they can either make peace with the Palestinians or kill them all.” And I added that Hamas seems to have given Netanyahu the excuse to pursue the latter choice.
Whereupon my friend wrote back to me: “I still, in spite of everything, believe the first of Gloria’s choices is possible, in spite of Netanyahu, and in spite of Hamas.”
I admire his bedrock optimism “in spite of everything.” I cannot bring myself to share it, but I hope with all my heart that he’s right, that peace really is possible.
W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.