We Israelis are going through a terrible time. So are the Gazans—much more so. Peace is not a possibility, a truce is wishful thinking, and even a temporary ceasefire still looks unlikely. I do not know whether my country can stop fighting Hamas, as rockets are being intercepted overhead while I type on my laptop in downtown Tel Aviv.
But I do feel able to offer an idea to my government: send substantial medical aid to Gaza today. Let its hospitals, at least those not used by Hamas as clandestine arsenals, replenish their dwindling supplies. Do not just permit NGOs to bring in medications, as you have reportedly done already. Send them in yourself.
War tends to eradicate nuances, but let me insist on airing them: I am a Zionist peacenik Israeli who strongly believes that Hamas is holding millions of Gazans hostage. Even if some of them vehemently support Hamas—while others lean even further towards ISIS Islamism—many of Gaza’s inhabitants, all children included, are the innocent and helpless victims of reckless Hamas militancy, its repugnant use of civilians as human shields, and its resolute rejection of any peace deal with Israel.
Israel, which invaded Gaza following a barrage of rockets, has justice on its side, but not absolute justice. I am deeply critical of my current and previous governments, whose Gaza policies have been passive, unimaginative, and arguably unwilling to offer real hope to Palestinians, even in their dealings with the moderates headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. In Gaza, my government was more eager to punish the rulers than to help the population. Yet despite these liabilities, I share the view of many Israelis, right and left, that the overwhelming blame for the current Gaza conflict rests with Hamas.
As ground battles rage in the streets of Gaza, it is already and sadly clear that both sides have, by their own lights, badly misfired. Hamas failed in its bid to kill large numbers of innocent Israelis; and Israel failed in its efforts not to kill innocent Gazans. It does not matter to a dead child’s family whether he or she was killed by human error, technical malfunction, or the notorious Hamas practice of shielding its fighters and arsenal by surrounding them with civilians, preferably children. Each innocent fatality—in Gaza, Israel, Syria, or Iraq—is a horrible, inexcusable, intolerable, and irreversible fact. Looking at their faces on our screens, the clinical words “collateral damage” falter and fade. My heart goes out to them, and mine is not the only such heart among Israelis.
Still, all too many of my fellow citizens would hear nothing of civilian suffering on the other side. War not only kills nuances; it also strangles compassion.
Along with the sensible part of his cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows as well as I do that many or perhaps most Gazans are Hamas’s victims. We keep saying that they are not the targets. We keep saying that Gaza should be freed from the clutches of Hamas. But what are we doing to prevent its hapless citizens from hating Israel so very much more than they hate Hamas? Why should Israel be surprised if, on the day after Hamas, they elect ISIS militants to govern them instead? The writing is already there, on Gaza’s tottering walls.
Let me therefore make a suggestion that may be hugely unpopular in Israel at this time: that now, in the midst of fighting, or very soon, during a humanitarian ceasefire, the Israeli army should bring or parachute medical drugs, life-saving medications, and surgical equipment directly into the cities and villages of the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians may hate receiving such goods from the Israelis, but they will nevertheless use them. They may use them to treat injured terrorists, among others, but statistics suggest that most medications will reach the “collateral damage” casualties. Maybe even save a child’s life.
Is this practical? Yes. It is. Medical aid is entering Gaza every day, funded by U.N. and philanthropic organizations and allowed in by Israel. Ambulances are constantly leaving the Gaza strip carrying not only injured Israeli troops but also sick and wounded Palestinians to Israel’s hospitals. This activity can be stepped up, along the same channels, by supplies sent and sponsored by the State of Israel itself.
Such mid-war aid is not usual. Some people would deem this suggestion hypocritical, a mere needle in a burning haystack, while others—including many Israelis, I am afraid—would deem it a treacherous notion of aiding one’s enemy wartime. Between these two extremes, as it often happens, some little good might be done. It may astonish Palestinian victims but also help and encourage them, undermine and vex the Hamas perpetrators, and perhaps send out a tiny signal of hope and compassion across one of the world’s saddest borders.
This goes against the rules and norms of war, I know. Being a historian of ideas, not a specialist in military history, I do not know whether it has a precedent in the annals of armed conflict. Be it as it may, we Israelis, at our best, are rather adept at breaking the rules. Since when have we been afraid of thinking out of the box? Why not create a new model of mid-war humanity for other combatants to emulate? World peace is a long way away. Let us begin changing the awful reality of war one step at a time.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli writer and history professor at the University of Haifa. Her most recent book, co-authored with her father, Amos Oz, is Jews and Words (Yale, 2012).