Who can watch what has been going on in Gaza and not weep in pain?
Most of us have no special knowledge of the area, its history, the tangled destinies of the people who live there. But we have seen over the years that leaders who took big risks for peace were cut down by their fellow countrymen – Anwar Sadat in 1981 and Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The untamed intensity of fear and hatred seems to overwhelm the occasional seeds of hope that are sown.
One people feel surrounded and threatened with extinction – and they probably are. The other people feel their land has been occupied, their homes and their future prospects stolen – and they probably have been. Because each side feels it has its back to the wall (or the sea), the ominous predictions about the actions of the other side offered by the hawks are often fulfilled.
There have been other burning enmities in our time. Often they have involved people who knew each other well and shared blood and history. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland come to mind. They fought and hated till they exhausted themselves and had no reserves of energy left to fuel their hatred. North and South Korea are still at each other’s throats today, sharing the same sick rhythms and refrains of self-destructive, reciprocal antagonism seen in Israel and Gaza, though without an apparent religious dimension. In the Balkans, I once stood on the ground where, I was told, a mosque had stood. It had been built on the ruins of a church, which itself had been built upon the ruins of an earlier mosque constructed by the Turks centuries ago.
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As Israelis and Palestinians have fired rockets, bullets and invective at each other, outsiders line up to support one side or the other. Some pour rhetorical gasoline on the fire, others provide arms. And as on a parched countryside bristling with tinder, fires spring up in several places at once: A bloody civil war has been raging in Syria; unrest in many of the Gulf emirates continues; Iran continues its two-decade-long drive to produce nuclear weapons, as neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt consider doing the same.
And through this burning geography move ships carrying a large portion of the oil on which the global economy depends.
A French movie released earlier this year is now available in the United States. “The Other Son,” by filmmaker Lorraine Levy, is about an Israeli family and a Palestinian family who discover that their sons were accidentally switched at birth in the hospital. In a world of violence and mistrust, two families struggle to accept that a child they love “belongs” to a people they hate. It will make you think about culture and religion and upbringing, and about the roads we take, often blindly, after the destiny of birth.
The most disturbing thing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the grievances and fears are so terribly real. You cannot say it is all based on misunderstandings or on wounds that do not cause great and continuing suffering and could not justify life-threatening response.
Does this mean, then, that as part of the human adventure there are, brutally, moments and places where deep, unreasoning anger and unforgiving hate are woven so deeply into the fabric of a given region that nothing can stop them running their course?
Is it possible that there is no alternative to letting them burn themselves out, like a fire that consumes everything around it and dies only when everything is destroyed and there is nothing left to burn?
Let us give thanks for the truce, no matter how fragile or temporary.