Secure Israel, but protect innocent in Gaza

As a lover of Israel and a person staunchly committed to the safety and security of the Jewish homeland and all her inhabitants, I identify with the fear Israelis living on Israel’s border with Gaza feel.
I have visited the preschools in Sderot and the residents of Kibbutz Nahal Oz and seen the ways in which their lives are threatened by ongoing terrorism. I expect that the Israeli military will protect those individuals from threats that come from missiles, from underground tunnels and most recently, from rocks, burning tires and wire cutters.
First and foremost, the role of government is to protect its citizens. The question is, in this moment in history, who is responsible for protecting the people of Gaza?
The mothers and fathers, babies and elderly, children and young adults of Gaza have no government to protect them. Their elected government, Hamas, puts them directly in the line of fire. The Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt give them limited resources and can withdraw those resources at will. Over the past 18 years, each of these governments have repeatedly explained why they cannot be responsible for protecting people who are being controlled by the others. While this callous and manipulative game of passing the buck has gone on, Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants have experienced an exponential decline in their living conditions, to the point where the cage in which they live, delimited by its borders with Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is predicted to be uninhabitable within a matter of months. They cannot leave, and they have nowhere to turn for help.
Many pro-Israel groups portray the situation in Gaza as a hopeless knot, which, if it is to be untied, must somehow be loosened by the people of Gaza themselves. Other pro-Israel groups view this attitude as an abrogation of moral responsibility, one that ultimately puts Israel more at risk. Instead of spending time debating which of these groups is right, the pro-Israel community should be working to support the people of Gaza who are trying to find a way out of their nightmare while continuing to support rational and effective security for Israel.
Last year, I met a Palestinian man from Gaza named Yousef Bashir at a conference in Dallas. Yousef grew up near Kfar Darom, one of the Israeli settlements dismantled in the withdrawal from Gaza in 2006. In 2000, as part of an Israeli military defense strategy implemented at the beginning of the Second Intifada, IDF soldiers occupied his family home and converted it into a military post. Yousef was 11 years old at the time. His father chose to stay in their home when the IDF moved in, fearing that if the family left, they would never be allowed to return.
Israeli soldiers relegated the Bashir family to a small area of their own home. They had to ask permission to use their kitchen and their bathroom. When using the bathroom, Yousef and his mother, father, sisters and brothers all had to leave the door open. The IDF required that Israeli surveillance be maintained over their most personal and private matters, in a home where there had been no security threat. Despite daily humiliation and dehumanization, Yousef’s father insisted on living with dignity, treating the soldiers as guests in his home and setting an example of peaceful defiance, decency and coexistence for his children.
In 2004, when Yousef was 15 years old, he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier in his front yard. The IDF took responsibility for the shooting, but never explained it. Yousef was taken to a hospital in Tel Aviv and was able to experience everything we know about the Israeli medical system — unsurpassed excellence in the treatment and care of his physical and emotional wounds. For the first time in his life, he felt that Israeli Jews were treating him as a human being, and he was able to see them as healers rather than oppressors.
As soon as Yousef was released from medical supervision, his father sent him to a camp run by Seeds of Peace, one of hundreds of organizations that bring young Palestinians and young Israelis together to “transform legacies of conflict into courage to lead change.” This experience deepened Yousef’s commitment to connecting with Jews and Israelis in authentic and meaningful ways in order to disrupt the destructive cycle of mutual suffering.
Yousef was able to leave Gaza in 2006 to come to the United States, where he has lived ever since. He completed high school in the U.S., received a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University and went on to complete a master’s degree in conflict and coexistence from Brandeis University. Since graduation, he has worked on Capitol Hill, doing what he can to contribute to the country that welcomed him, educated him, and provided him with opportunities he would never have in Gaza. He does this despite the M16 bullet that remains lodged in his back, a painful reminder of a complex personal story in which his father’s love and humanity remains his guiding light.
Yousef is an example of a Gazan who is trying to find a way out of the seemingly intractable conflict in his homeland. Yousef’s father died in 2009, and he did not attend his funeral for fear of risking his ability to return to the U.S. He has only seen his mother once, in Germany, when she was allowed to travel there for medical treatment. His most beloved family members, friends and teachers are living without adequate electricity, clean water, shelter or hope. He sees that the U.S. is not yet doing what it can to alleviate their suffering. So, he is using his own story and his legacy of faith in humanity to build support for doing what we can to protect the people of Gaza.
We do not have to reduce our empathy for and solidarity with Israelis living on the border with Gaza in order to feel empathy for and solidarity with Palestinians living in Gaza. Our elected officials here in the U.S. can and should be doing whatever they can to help avoid further suffering and bloodshed by taking and encouraging steps that protect the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. Steps such as unfreezing funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, encouraging the easing of the blockade on goods and equipment, and supporting infrastructure initiatives such as the proposed Gaza Seaport are in keeping with the U.S. State Department’s mission to “advance the security of the American people by assisting countries around the world to build more democratic, secure, stable and just societies.” (
In Pirkei Avot 2:21 Rabbi Tarfon teaches: “You are not expected to complete the work, and neither are you free to abdicate your responsibility for it.” When it comes to the work to be done in Gaza, our first responsibility is to recognize that innocent human beings are suffering, and to find a way to identify with them. Our second responsibility is to hold our own country accountable to its own values. When we have the courage to take these steps, we join the ranks of new leadership that will transform legacies of conflict into legacies of peace.
Rabbi Nancy Kasten teaches Jewish Mindfulness. She has has helped to introduce the Dallas community to Israeli organizations and groups including Roots/Shorashim/Judur, Creativity for Peace, Polyphony, the Shalom Hartman Institute and Beit Berl College, and is a co-founder of the Dallas Chapter of JStreet.

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