By Paul V. DeMarco
The war in Gaza has galvanized the American public more than any international conflict in decades. To try to educate myself on this faraway conflict, I have spent many hours listening to the voices, both written and spoken, of Jews and Palestinians. Many of them express mistrust, disdain, and even hatred of the other, none of which I feel.
What I feel is profound sorrow that two peoples who believe in a loving God have let it come to this. The barbarous Oct. 7 attack on innocent Israeli civilians was as cruel as it was shocking. There is no way to justify it. It must be condemned as heinous and self-defeating. Hamas knew it would provoke the overwhelming Israeli response that is unfolding. Many more Palestinians will die than Israelis who were killed in the initial attack. It was desperate and senseless.
But if one puts the attack in context, one can see how a young Palestinian man could be radicalized to feel that this kind of vengeance was his only remaining option. I’ve never been to Gaza, but I think I can understand on a basic human level what it might be like. That young Palestinian man could have grandparents who were driven off their land in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, could have parents who have lived their entire lives as refugees, and could himself be unable to find work because of the economic and travel restrictions Israel has placed on Gaza. It’s possible for me to understand how such a person could have his mind warped into killing for revenge, particularly if surrounded by a circle of jihadist contemporaries.
I can also understand what it might be like to be a Jewish man of that same age whose great-grandparents were Holocaust survivors, whose grandparents grew up in the new, precarious Jewish state in the 1950 and ’60s and fought in the 1967 war, whose parents fought in the second intifada, and who himself has had to live his entire life fearing suicide bombings and missile strikes. I can understand his wholesale lack of trust in the Palestinians, a simmering anger with the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to compromise to achieve a two-state solution, his horror at Gaza being run by Hamas, which advocates for Israel’s dissolution, and his fury over the Oct. 7 attacks.
So where do we look for hope? America’s history provides a glimmer. Our nation knows something about forcibly removing a people from their land, as we did with the Native Americans. In addition to Native Americans, we have historically denied many other groups their full citizenship rights. But America has gradually welcomed those it previously sought to exclude or marginalize. The process has been slow, often begrudging, and it is not yet complete. But America’s direction is clear. Israel has the same duty. It drove Palestinians off their land in order to create a Jewish state and has denied them the right of self-determination. It must find a way, as America has, to right those wrongs.
The Palestinians, for their part, must renounce violence. Every group that was treated unjustly in America has won its rights over the past century by mostly peaceful means. It is essential that the Palestinians do the same. As long as they indiscriminantly fire rockets, detonate suicide bombs, and commit unspeakable atrocities as they did on Oct. 7, Israel is within its rights to fight back.
Imagine if after breaching the border wall on Oct. 7, tens of thousands of Palestinians had marched peacefully into Israel in a demonstration similar to the American March on Washington in 1963. They would have been embraced by the international community. People like me, and I believe there are many, who recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have a legitimate claim to the land and that both a Jewish and Palestinian state deserve to exist side by side, would have been moved by that display. We know that our nation provides substantial aid to both Israel and the Palestinians and therefore has leverage. We are willing to add a candidate’s position on Middle East peace to our electoral calculus. But we will not support violence from either side.
As a starting point, the two sides have an important commonality – a language of peace. In Hebrew the word is shalom. In Arabic it is salaam. It means more than a sterile absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, a state in which God’s people treat each other as he intended.
These two words can be the cornerstone of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. I had an elderly Jewish patient who would greet me with a resonant “Shalom” when I walked into the exam room. It was so much more powerful than my generic “Hello.” It was tangible, a verbal embrace. Similarly, on a medical mission to Tanzania in 2020, I was sometimes greeted with “Salaam Alaikum” (“Peace be upon you”) by Muslim passersby. One evening, our group was invited to a Christian Bible study by some local missionaries. As we sang a hymn, the Muslim call to prayer could be heard from a nearby mosque, symbolic of the harmony that can exist between the religions.
We in America have a role to play. As voters we should demand that aid for both sides become contingent on seeing real progress toward the two-state solution.
A version of this column appeared in the Dec. 21 edition of the Post and Courier-Pee Dee.