The situation involving Israel, the Palestinian people, war-torn Gaza, and the West Bank seems to change by the hour, and so does the way that so many people feel about it. That was really driven home in a diary by Associated Press journalist Fares Akram, who is from Gaza and wrote this weekend about what it’s like to cover a never-ending conflict that has claimed the life of his father and five other family members, and which saw an Israeli bomb slam into his family’s farm on Friday. He said his work was his only refuge.
“The Associated Press office is the only place in Gaza City I feel somewhat safe,” Akram wrote. “The Israeli military has the coordinates of the high-rise, so it’s less likely a bomb will bring it crashing down.” But even that last sliver of faith proved illusory.
At the same time the AP journalist was posting his essay, the Israeli Defense Force was on the phone telling the news organization, its neighbors from the Al Jazeera network, and other residents to leave that high-rise immediately. The IDF claimed its enemy Hamas had a presence in the building (something the AP had never observed despite careful vetting) and gave the journalists less than an hour to evacuate. Soon, three missiles struck the 12-story al-Jalaa Building where the AP had been located for some 15 years, reducing it to a pile of rubble in seconds.
“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” the AP’s president and CEO Gary Pruitt said after its offices were destroyed — which, frankly, looked like the whole point of the attack. I was struck on Saturday by how the episode paralleled — albeit in much worse fashion — the decline in press freedom here in the United States, where efforts to cover oppressive policing against the George Floyd protests saw a steep spike in violence toward journalists as well as arrests. It heightened a broader sense that, for all the notable differences between the war-torn Middle East and America’s crises, there are also dangerous parallels — from overly militarized responses to deep structural flaws in our democracies.
Despite the efforts to hinder news coverage, what we know about the escalating violence in the region over the last week is still horrifying. As the AP offices were being destroyed, an Israeli bomb strike at a Palestinian refugee camp killed eight children and two mothers — part of a death toll among Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere that has risen to 145 people, including 41 children. Rocket attacks from Hamas are blamed for seven Israeli civilian deaths, including a 5-year-old. The human tragedy was best captured by a video of a 10-year-old Palestinian girl. “I’m only 10,” she says, tearfully. “I can’t even deal with this anymore.”
The cycle of violence is on one hand numbingly familiar — stretching all the way back to the Nakba in 1948, meaning that most of us have witnessed this our entire lives — and yet this time it also felt different. The reckless escalations and human rights violations of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli government seem to have crossed a line that had once prevented many Americans from speaking out against a longtime ally in the Middle East. Here in Philadelphia and a score of other U.S. cities, thousands took to the streets to wave Palestinian flags and denounce the bombing of Gaza — with many of the protesters drawing parallels to the racial and cultural oppression they marched against in 2020 after Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
It felt like a sea change was underway, and yet it doesn’t seem to have fully registered in the White House or with 78-year-old President Joe Biden, with one foot still planted in the era when criticism of Israeli conduct was a political taboo. Biden called Netanyahu on Saturday and — while urging an end to violence — offered “unwavering support” for Israel’s right of self-defense; the prime minister then thanked the American president for his support as he declared the bombing and other military actions would continue. Biden’s stance seems outdated and out of touch — especially on the day that Israel blew up the office of a U.S.-based news organization. The United States has leverage in the region — including $3.8 billion a year in military aid to Israel — and Netanyahu’s deadly escalations are a good time to use its influence for good.
Decades of failure by all sides in addressing the Middle Eastern conflict has placed innocent people at the mercy of leaders with blood on their hands. The political influence of Hamas — one inevitable consequence of the horrendous cycle — has clearly escalated violence instead of boosting efforts for peace and addressing poverty among the Palestinian people. But on the Israeli side, the catastrophic 12-year most recent reign of Netanyahu (schooled here in the Philadelphia region, at Cheltenham High School) has heightened both structural as well as short-term flaws in his nation’s claim to govern as a true democracy.
With Netanyahu on the brink of finally losing power — after failing to gain a majority in four deeply divided elections with inconclusive results — the current conflict is undeniably linked to aggressive Israeli provocations, including cutting off the loudspeakers broadcasting prayers at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, with Israeli security forces days later entering the mosque and attacking with stun grenades and rubber bullets, during the holy month of Ramadan. It’s hard not to see these moves as triggering a crisis to keep Netanyahu — also on trial for corruption charges — in power, even as its inevitable consequence is the slaughter of innocent children.
The leadership crisis in Israel reminds me in many ways of our own political hardships. That nation’s election mess feels like Donald Trump’s 2016 election with a minority of the popular vote but on steroids. Israel’s multiparty parliamentary system seems no better at producing a government than the U.S. Electoral College; in both nations, division seems to have strengthened the religious right while the more secular left is torn by bickering and weak leadership. The allegations of illegal wrongdoing by Netanyahu have hovered over Israel for years without a resolution, much as we’ve so far been unable to hold Trump to account for his corruption.
But look at the bigger picture. Both the United States and Israel brand themselves to the world as beacons of democracy, but the actual product both are selling is deeply flawed. In Israel, the disconnect between the stated commitment to democracy and the reality of an apartheid that denies a vote to five million Palestinians in occupied territories and also discriminates against Arab citizens is pronounced. Here in the United States, the Rube Goldberg-type devices that were created in the 18th century and perpetuated slavery — including the Electoral College, but also an undemocratic Senate in which a determined minority can block social progress — has allowed a political party in utter denial about indisputable truths to continue to wield veto power. Like Israel, the forces of American conservatism have increasingly looked toward state violence and voter suppression.
In both Israel and the United States, it’s been too easy to follow the slippery slope of division and blaming The Other rather than addressing these internal flaws, and making some hard choices about how to create a true democracy. On this side of the pond, these contradictions flared up in an insurrection on Jan. 6 that ended with five people dead, trying to keep a delusional authoritarian in power. In the Middle East, a Trump ally’s very similar instincts to remain in teetering control are leading to dead children and a shocking attack on press freedom. This is morally unconscionable.
It also should be a giant red flag to all Americans — that Israel’s problems are our problems, too. In the short run, we need to get real about the immediate crisis and demand a solution that means full human rights and self-determination for the Palestinian people. In the long run, we need to remember that throughout history, the breakdown of democracy has always led to violence. Jan. 6 was horrible, but it was also a reminder that the next Trumpian president could resort to far worse violence — either international or domestic — to keep a grip on power. Let’s pray for peace in the Middle East, and then for the United States to get its own house divided in order.
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