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Editorial: Both sides must look for alternatives to violence in Middle East

  • Mahmoud al-Ghol, 10, was pulled from beneath the rubble of a house in Gaza, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed nine members of his family. (CNS/Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
  • Palestinians sit outside their destroyed house in Gaza, which witnesses said was hit by heavy Israeli shelling and air strikes during an offensive Aug. 7. (CNS/Reuters/Mohammed Salem)
  • Smoke rises in the Gaza Strip after an Israeli strike Aug. 8. (CNS/Reuters/Amir Cohen)
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Editorial

We welcome the news that Israel and Gaza began another 72-hour cease-fire Monday morning and that an Israeli delegation would travel to Cairo to negotiate a more permanent truce with Palestinians. Other cease-fires never seemed to hold in the month of bloody, crushing battles that have killed nearly 1,900 Palestinians -- most of them civilians and children -- and left large swaths of Gaza a moonscape of caters and rubble.

Robert Turner, director of operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, described Gaza as a "health and humanitarian disaster." According to initial estimates, 10,000 homes are uninhabitable. As much as a quarter of Gaza's 1.8 million people are homeless.

According to Oxfam, dozens of wells, pipelines and reservoirs in Gaza have been destroyed. Freshwater reserves have become contaminated with raw sewage. "15,000 tons of solid waste fills the streets, water pumping stations are on the verge of running out of fuel, and many neighborhoods have been without power for days," Oxfam reports.

From the earliest days of this monthlong campaign, much of the world stood by, acquiescing to Israel's rhetoric that it was acting in self-defense. Under the standard formula, we should now cite the number of Israeli casualties, 64 soldiers and three civilians, as if citing such lopsided numbers balances the overwhelming violence visited on one party.

It wasn't until after Israeli shellfire landed outside a United Nations school, where children and adults were lining up at mid-morning to buy cookies and sweets, that the international community mustered adequate collective courage to criticize the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The U.S. State Department declared it was "appalled" by Israel's strike on the school Aug. 3, calling it a "disgraceful" act. The New York Times called this "blunt, unsparing language ... among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel." At least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded in the school, which was sheltering more than 3,000 Gazans. The U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon called it a "moral outrage" and a "criminal act." But by then, seven U.N. schools had come under fire in Gaza.

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In explaining the "just war" doctrine, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes one criterion is that "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated." Later, it adds: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."

The actions by the Israeli military in Gaza over the last month deserve "unequivocal condemnation."

And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that Israel lives amid declared enemies of its very existence -- Hamas, the dominant power in Gaza, among them. Israelis have recent, vivid memories of bus bombings and suicide bombings in crowded Jerusalem shopping areas, all indiscriminately aimed at civilians. No one would deny Israel its right to security and self-defense, but that right cannot justify limitless action.

Similarly, Israel is right in asking the international community to condemn Hamas' tactic of embedding within the civilian population -- which we do condemn -- but this does not relieve Israel, especially as the overwhelmingly superior force in this conflict, of the responsibility under moral and international law to protect civilians.

Both sides must at last find the moral courage to look for alternatives to violence. That sentence is so plain as to seem naive, but in its simplicity is its truth. Security walls, blockades, caches of rockets, tunnels and Iron Domes have corralled unrelenting violence, but they have not brought peace.

***

Life in Gaza before this latest war was already miserable. A seven-year Israeli blockade had severely crippled the local economy. Israel does not allow Gazans to operate a seaport or airport. Travel to Israel, which is needed to enter the West Bank, the much larger Palestinian territory, is restricted to "exceptional humanitarian cases," mostly medical patients.

With limited exceptions for humanitarian projects, the import of construction materials is not permitted. Most other civilian imports are allowed, but residents of the coastal enclave aren't allowed to export to Israel or the West Bank, which once accounted for 85 percent of their market. The official unemployment rate is 50 percent.

Living in Gaza, residents and their advocates say, is like living in a prison camp. Their one hope is that the blockade will be lifted. In its press release, Oxfam called the blockade "a collective punishment of an entire civilian population [that is] ... destroying the economy and eroding basic rights."

Oxfam continued, "The ceasefire alone will not be enough to end Gaza's suffering -- the blockade of Gaza must also end if there is to be real recovery and lasting peace for both Israelis and Palestinians."

"Even the tunnels" dug by Hamas and a primary target of Israel's military action "are a product of the embargo," said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem. "If the siege ends, if roads are opened and the free movement of persons and products is permitted, if people are allowed to fish in the sea" along the Gaza coast, then "no one will need to dig tunnels."

The next step, he said, must be lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

***

Israel has invaded Gaza three times in five years. The goal of this latest invasion, like the others, was to continue to destabilize Palestinian society and fracture the Fatah-Hamas unity government and in that way to destroy all chances of an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu made this clear in a press conference July 14, four days into Operation Protective Edge: "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." The West Bank is 20 times the size of Gaza, Netanyahu said, and Israel can't allow 20 Gazas.

Reporting on this press conference, David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, wrote, "Not relinquishing security control west of the Jordan, it should be emphasized, means not giving a Palestinian entity full sovereignty there. … That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state."

An independent, self-governing state is the Palestinian demand upon which all other demands are laid. Netanyahu, it would seem, will never accept that. With this political leadership in Israel, there will not be permanent peace. At this time, the best any negotiations can achieve is a status quo. And another war. Gazans will be led back into their prison, and no Palestinians will live free. Israelis will continue to rely on bomb shelters, missile defenses and security walls for temporary respite. But it will be only temporary.

In recent testimony before the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Vatican's representative, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, described Israelis and Palestinians as being in "a culture of violence [that] is being consolidated, the fruits of which are destruction and death."

"Consciences are paralyzed by a climate of protracted violence, which seeks to impose solutions through the annihilation of the other. Demonizing others, however, does not eliminate their rights. Instead, the way to the future lies in recognizing our common humanity."

The first step in breaking this cycle of violence is for the parties to accept the other's right to exist peacefully in states of their own and to ensure that the populations of both states have adequate social and economic opportunities necessary for living decently.

This is the foundation from which dialogue can begin and peace can evolve. It is a tall order given the current political climate, but it is the only right and moral path forward.

This story appeared in the Aug 15-28, 2014 print issue under the headline: Both sides must look for alternatives to violence .

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