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AFTER GAZA

Israel Must Stop Fanning the Flames That Will Consume Us

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By David Grossman
Sunday, January 25, 2009

JERUSALEM

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Like the pairs of foxes in the biblical story of Samson, tied together by the tail with a flaming torch between them, we and the Palestinians are dragging each other into disaster -- despite our disparate strength, and even when we try very hard to separate. And as we do, we burn the one who is bound to us, our double, our nemesis, ourselves.

So, a month after the war began, in the midst of the wave of nationalist invective now sweeping Israel, it would not hurt to keep in mind that this latest military operation in Gaza was, when all is said and done, just one more way-station on a road paved with fire, violence and hatred. On this road, you sometimes win and you sometimes lose, but in the end it leads to ruin.

As both Israel and Hamas declared their own cease-fires, we Israelis rejoiced at how this campaign has rectified Israel's military failures in the Second Lebanon War of 2006. But we should listen to the voice that says that the Israel Defense Forces' achievements are not indubitable proof that Israel was right to set out on an operation of such huge proportions; they certainly do not justify the way our army pursued its mission. The IDF's success confirms only that Israel is much stronger than Hamas, and that under certain circumstances it can be very tough and cruel.

But as the magnitude of the killing and the devastation has become apparent to all, perhaps Israeli society will, for a brief moment, put its sophisticated mechanisms of repression and self-righteousness on hold. And then perhaps a lesson of some sort will be etched into the Israeli consciousness. Maybe then we will finally understand something deep and fundamental -- that our conduct here in this region has, for a long time, been flawed, immoral and unwise. Time and again, it fans the flames that are consuming us.

Of course, the Palestinians cannot be absolved of culpability for their errors and crimes. To do so would show contempt and condescension toward them, as if they were not rational adults responsible for their mistakes and oversights. True, the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip were in large measure "strangled" by Israel, but they, too, had other options, other ways of protesting, voicing and displaying their difficult plight. Firing thousands of rockets at innocent civilians in Israel was not their only choice. We must not forget that. We must not be forgiving of the Palestinians, as if it goes without saying that when they are in distress, their almost automatic response must be violence.

But even when the Palestinians act with reckless belligerence -- with suicide bombings and Qassam missiles -- Israel, which is many times stronger than they are, has tremendous power to control the level of violence in the conflict as a whole. As such, it can also have a profound influence on calming the conflict and extricating both sides from its cycle of destruction. This most recent military action indicates that there does not seem to be anyone in the Israeli leadership who grasps that, who fully appreciates this critical aspect of the dispute.

After all, the day will come when we will want to try to heal the wounds that we have just inflicted. How can that day come if we do not understand that our military might cannot be our principal tool for establishing our presence here, across from and among the Arab nations? How can those days come if we do not grasp the gravity of the responsibility imposed on us by our multifarious, fateful ties and connections, past and future, with the Palestinian nation in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and inside Israel itself?

When the clouds of smoke clear, when the politicians' declarations of comprehensive, decisive victory fade, when we realize what this operation has really achieved, when we see how large the gap is between those declarations and what we really need to know in order to live a normal life in this region, when we acknowledge that an entire nation eagerly hypnotized itself because it needed so badly to believe that Gaza would cure its Lebanon malady -- then we can turn our attention to those who time and again have incited Israeli society's hubris and its exaltation of power. To those who have, for so many years, taught us to scorn belief in peace and hope for any change at all in our relations with the Arabs. To those who have persuaded us that the Arabs understand only force, and that we can speak to them only in that language.

Since we have spoken that way to them so often, and only that way, we have forgotten that there are other languages that can be used to communicate with other human beings, even enemies, even enemies as bitter as Hamas -- languages that are mother tongues to us, the Israelis, no less so than the language of the jet and the tank.

To talk to the Palestinians. That must be the central conclusion we reach from this last, bloody round of war. To talk even with those who do not recognize our right to exist here. Instead of ignoring Hamas now, we must take advantage of the new situation and enter into a dialogue to enable an accommodation with the Palestinian people as a whole. To talk, in order to understand that reality is not just the hermetically sealed story that we and the Palestinians have been telling ourselves for generations, the story that we are imprisoned within, no small part of which consists of fantasies, wishes and nightmares. To talk in order to devise, within this opaque, unhearing reality, an opportunity for speech, for that alternative -- so scorned and forlorn today -- for which, in the tempest of war, there is almost no place, no hope, no believers.

To talk as a well-considered strategy, to initiate dialogue, to insist on speech, to talk to the wall, to talk even if it seems fruitless. In the long term, this stubbornness may do far more for our future than hundreds of airplanes dropping bombs on a city and its people. To talk out of the understanding, born of the recent horrors we have seen, that the destruction we, each people in its own way, are able to cause one another is a huge and corrupting force. If we surrender to it and its logic, it will, in the end, destroy us all.

To talk, because what has taken place in Gaza over the past three weeks places before us in Israel a mirror that reflects a face that would horrify us were we to gaze on it for one moment from the outside, or if we were to see it on another nation. We would understand then that our victory is no real victory, and that the war in Gaza has not brought us any healing in that place where we desperately need a cure.

David Grossman is a leading Israeli novelist and peace activist. A version of this article first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It was translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman.


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