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Will Israel recognize the Palestinians’ right to exist?

By Shan Cretin

Imagine that you live in a community the size of Bakersfield, California. Now multiply the population by a factor of 5. Imagine that for ten days your city is bombarded more than 100 times every day. Then add a ferocious ground offensive and intensified bombing by a vastly superior force. Imagine that almost half of your community—your friends and neighbors, your children’s playmates—have been ordered to evacuate but the borders are closed. You have nowhere to go that is safe.  

This is life in Gaza.

More than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed since July 8, more than 70 percent civilians including many children. The death of 193 Dutch citizens on Malaysia Air 17 has been called a "9/11 scale event" for the Netherlands with its population of 17 million.  Imagine more than 1,800 dead—408 of them children—and 8,000 wounded as of this writing means for 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza.

While the Iron Dome defense ensures many fewer casualties in Israel, families there also live in fear amid warning sirens piercing the night and rockets falling.  When the vastly superior Israel Defense Force cracks down on Hamas militants by bombing schools and hospitals and killing hundreds of civilians, both Israelis and Palestinians are much less likely to find the peace and security they deserve.

As the civilian death toll soars and basic services in Gaza are cut off, it’s hard to imagine a way to interrupt this cycle of violence. As long as the Israeli government fails to recognize the basic humanity of the Palestinians in Gaza, as long as Israel's actions deny the Palestinians' right to simply exist, the journey towards peace cannot begin.

We at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) know better than most the obstacles to peace. We have worked in Gaza since 1949, when the United Nations asked us to provide relief in Gaza to Palestinian refugees fleeing as a result of the 1948 War. We expected that within a year these refugees would return to their homes in Ashkalon, Jaffa and elsewhere in the newly proclaimed state of Israel. As a peace organization that had resettled refugees in Germany after the World Wars, AFSC hoped to transform a relief operation into one of repatriation and reconciliation.

In 1950, the refugees were still in Gaza. AFSC transferred its relief program to the new United Nations Relief Works Agency. Sixty-four years later UNRWA schools are sheltering over 200,000 Palestinians seeking safety from this most recent military incursion – or more properly termed, this siege of Gaza.

This siege did not begin with the Israeli ground invasion on July 17 or the airstrikes and artillery fire on July 8. It is an escalation of economic and military sanctions that began in 2006, when free and fair elections brought Hamas to power in Gaza. Since then, Palestinians living in Gaza have lived under an Israeli military and economic blockade described by many as "slow death."

Israel and the United States claim that negotiation with Hamas as "a terrorist organization" is impossible. Is that true? In November 2012 a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas dramatically reduced rocket fire into Israel, from more than 2,200 in 2012 to just 52 in 2013. That ceasefire effectively ended when Israel ignited the current conflagration by firing a missile into Gaza on June 11 killing two Palestinians including a child.

Interrupting this violence can begin with a ceasefire – but ending the cycle that perpetuates it will take the Israeli government’s acknowledgement of Palestinians’ right, not only to exist, but to be treated with equality and dignity. There will be no peace for either side until every life is valued and everyone's rights are respected.

Palestinians must have the right to live and prosper. That requires dismantling unjust systems that confiscate their lands, demolish their homes, restrict their travel, cut off water and electricity, and offer few prospects for economic development. 

Today AFSC still works with Palestinians and Israelis seeking peace grounded in justice. Our program Palestinian Youth Together for Change connects young Palestinians living in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Israel and Gaza. We encourage these youth to develop strategies for nonviolent social change across geographical divides.

Abdullah Mansour Abu Amara, a promising young man with plans to become a human rights lawyer, was part of this program.  On July 17, Abdullah, aged 22, was killed in the Israeli attack on Shuja’iya.  

To bring lasting peace to Israel and Palestine, we need more young men like Abdullah, working on creative alternatives to build cohesion among Palestinians. We need more courageous Israelis, like the 5,000 who gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to call for an end to the Israeli military operation in Gaza.

Palestinians and Israelis working on peace need the international community to do its part, by condemning violations of basic human rights, by holding accountable those who are responsible for breaches of international law, and by refusing military and economic aid that supports Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

Join us in urging Congress to commit to equitable policies that will lay the foundations for lasting, shared security between Israelis and Palestinians.  

Shan Cretin is General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace and justice organization that, along with the British Friends Service Council, received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all Quakers for relief and resettlement work in Europe following the World Wars.

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