I was down south twice this week speaking to people who live next to Gaza. One evening I was at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak near Rafiah speaking to about 50 people from the Movement for the Future of the Western Negev. The next evening I was in Sderot speaking to about 35 young people from the Sapir College branch of the One Voice Movement.
Most of the people I met are still living the trauma of the summer’s war. Some told me the painful stories of the stress and anxiety that children in the area are still suffering from.
A mother told me that her son wakes up every morning and asks if the cease-fire is still on. Some people were able to express empathy for the horrible suffering of people inside of Gaza.
The older people there still remember the days of visiting Gaza, shopping there, and having friends and workers from Gaza in their own homes.
Almost everyone voiced deep concerns about when the next round would take place, and not “if” it would take place.
Everyone believes it is just a matter of time – and not too much time – before it all begins again. There is a deep sense that the war did not create the so-called “deterrence” that the generals spoke about. There is keen recognition that nothing has improved for the people of Gaza, that in fact their situation is much worse than it was before the war. So many thousands of people in Gaza are homeless, jobless and hopeless. The economy is in total shambles (by the way, many of the people in the south, especially in Sderot, also spoke about economic doom). Less than two percent of the money pledged for Gaza by the international community has arrived and also no building materials have entered Gaza for the reconstruction of destroyed homes. Gaza is in ruins, it is winter, raining and cold and there is even no glass to replace shattered windows.
The Palestinian national reconciliation government is barely functioning in Gaza. Services are at their worst level in the past decades. There are still long hours of the day and night without electricity. Sewage continues to flood the streets and flow into the sea (which by the way ends up on Israel’s beaches).
Factories are still shut because there is no market in Gaza to sell the goods and Israel still almost totally restricts the movement of goods out of Gaza. There has been some opening for some building materials and more goods entering Gaza from Israel.
The sense in Gaza is that without more violence Israel will not end the siege on Gaza. That is what people in Gaza understand.
There has still not been any Israeli political initiative. Continued international and regional pressure will mount on Israel to reduce the suffering inside of Gaza. Some of that pressure will even come from within the Israeli military and security establishment. Any openness by Israel toward Gaza in the absence of a comprehensive political initiative will correctly be viewed as an incentive to use force rather than the opposite, which would be the empowerment of moderates interested in negotiating real peace.
The government of Netanyahu still lives in the world of delusion thinking that the Arab world will accept Israel’s courting for cooperation against common radical Islamic threats while leaving the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. This will not happen. Even Egypt is limited in its ability to cooperate with Israel in public, and cooperation that goes beyond direct intelligence and security issues concerning the terrorist threats in Sinai is impossible for Egypt to accept.
The key to Israeli engagement in wider regional stabilization and security affairs remains the offer made to Israel way back in March of 2002 through the Arab Peace Initiative. From talks that I have held with Arab leaders and opinion makers, in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and even in Saudi Arabia it is quite clear that by accepting the Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, real opportunities would be created for regional cooperation through which there would even be Arab support for the disarming of Hamas and Gaza within the framework of what would become a demilitarized Palestinian state. But that requires Israel to take some political initiative.
The government of Netanyahu has not taken any political initiatives of this kind, nor will it before it turns into history. If the next government of Israel does not take these steps then it would not be unreasonable to predict that the next round of Gaza-Israel violence will happen very soon after the new government is created. Anyone who thinks that Hamas is not busy preparing itself for the next war and actually thinks that the war created deterrence has absolutely no understanding of Hamas.
The second thing which should be clear to everyone is that the Palestinians will continue their international diplomatic offensive and will continue to gain bilateral statehood recognition from almost every nation in the world.
They will continue to advance a new UN Security Council resolution and they are clearly on the path to victory. For that, I would venture to say that we Zionists in Israel should thank them because they are essentially working to preserve the two-state solution in which Israel is recognized on 78% of the land of Israel.
The Palestinian diplomatic offensive will eventually lead to a wake-up call to us all that Israel can no longer occupy the Palestinians and continue to be a Jewish and democratic state. The game is over. It simply will not work anymore.
We have finally come to that final crossing point. The choice is very much in our own hands, not exclusively, but to a great extent it is up to us, the people of Israel, to determine if we have the wisdom to enable the Palestinians to have their freedom on 22% of the land in exchange for the preservation and sustainability of the Zionist enterprise, meaning us having our own piece of land, the State of Israel, under our own control, in which we express our identity freely and democratically.
This is the time for us to act intelligently, cautiously but decisively in preserving our own identity, independence, security and our place in the world as a genuine peace-seeking nation dedicated to the values of the Jewish prophets that our Declaration of Independence speaks of. We must take control of our own destiny and future. We, the people of Israel, must forge a course forward which is no longer willing to accept a government that issues daily messages of threats aimed at flaming the fears which already exist and the anxieties that we face from living in such an unstable neighborhood.
No, it is not acceptable to have a government which has no vision for leading the nation toward peace.
Empty words of peace will no longer fool anyone. As we enter the gates of 2015 we will face the most important and fateful choices that our nation has ever faced. It is not about the cost of living, it is about life itself. Never before have we faced such important elections.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.