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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What happens when we lose sight of our shared humanity

The site of the Hamas attack in Be’eri, Israel, Oct. 23, 2023.

By Nicholas Kristof

One reason I’m afraid that the worst is yet to come in the Middle East is that the mutual dehumanization is the most savage I’ve ever seen it in decades of on-the-ground reporting in the region.

Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip is destroying tunnels, ammunition dumps and Hamas fighters, yes. But I’m afraid it’s also helping to pulverize the recognition of shared humanity that in the long run allows people to live beside one another in peace. The poisonous hatred in turn is already spilling over to the United States and other countries worldwide.

I was thinking about this as I drove the other day to meet some Palestinians who were temporarily allowed to visit Israel and became stuck in East Jerusalem. My Israeli taxi driver refused to enter the Palestinian neighborhood (“If I go there, I won’t make it out”) and finally abandoned me on the side of the road to get a Palestinian taxi. And then when I got to my destination, I interviewed a sweet 57-year-old Palestinian woman who was talking to me about the war and told me that she approved of Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians.

I pressed her, and she insisted it was fine even to kill a 5-year-old Israeli child, because “they are all Jews and Zionists.”

That conversation pretty much broke my heart. Such bigotry is nurtured by Hamas propaganda but also by Israeli bombing of Gaza: The woman said she had lost two cousins to Israeli fire, including a young woman married only a year ago, and she weeps daily at the bombardment of family and friends in Gaza.

Meanwhile, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the escalation of the ground operation Saturday, he cited biblical references to the Amalekites, who were the target of a divine genocide. In the story, God’s order was: “put to death men and women, children and infants.” Netanyahu wasn’t advocating that literal policy, but Amalek is a code word that regularly crops up in Israeli politics for a ruthless enemy that must be crushed without mercy.

Some have been more explicit in their biblical exegesis.

“You may think you’re being merciful” by sparing a child, counsels a far-right rabbi in a chilling video posted online, but actually “you’re being vicious to the ultimate victim that this child will grow up and kill.” And this too breaks my heart.

There are of course many other voices that are merciful and sensible, and I’ve highlighted them previously. But when children on both sides are slaughtered and people are fearful, it is extremists who invariably are ascendant.

That is the longtime pattern in the Middle East: It was Palestinian suicide bombers who propelled Netanyahu into the prime minister’s office, and it has been Israeli hard-liners who fuel extremist Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Extremists need each other, support each other,” Eyad al-Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist who died in 2013, once lamented to me. He complained that Israel’s blockade of Gaza since 2007 had turned Hamas fanatics into popular heroes.

Now I fear we face a prolonged war that will make the dehumanization on both sides much worse.

I’m astonished by a survey finding that 51% of American 18- to 24-year-olds say that Hamas’ killings could be justified. Have they seen the butchery committed by Hamas?

We’ve already also observed deadly threats to Jews and assaults on them, and posters of Israeli hostages have been torn down. A 6-year-old Muslim boy was murdered in a Chicago suburb in what police say was a hate crime: The boy was stabbed 26 times. I fear there’ll be more of this.

This is a path that leads nowhere, and that’s one reason I hope Israel will rein in the bombing and pursue more surgical strikes, while avoiding large-scale urban combat. Whatever you call the Gaza war so far, it is not surgical. The Economist found, based on satellite imagery, that 13% of Palestinians have had their homes damaged in just three weeks. While the number of dead in Gaza is difficult to pin down, and many bodies are probably still uncounted in the rubble, Unicef now calls Gaza “a graveyard for thousands of children.”

The Oct. 7 Hamas attacks understandably shattered Israel: President Joe Biden noted that if you adjust for population, the death toll was the equivalent of about 15 Sept. 11 attacks. It’s also true, as my colleague Ezra Klein noted in his podcast, that Gaza has suffered the equivalent of about 400 Sept. 11 attacks.

More children have been reported killed in Gaza in the past three weeks than in all global conflicts together in the entirety of last year, Save the Children notes. By the count of the Gaza Health Ministry, which is under the Hamas government but whose figures are roughly accepted by humanitarian agencies and in the past have been used by the State Department, a child has died on average about once every 10 minutes in the war.

And the Gaza war is just getting started.

I don’t think this is politically sustainable for Israel, or morally sustainable for America as we provide weapons used to kill and maim civilians. Nor do I believe it will be effective at protecting Israel.

“To kill terrorist leaders without addressing the despair of their supporters is a fool’s errand and produces more frustration, more despair, and more terrorism,” Ami Ayalon, a former leader of the Shin Bet security agency, wrote in his 2020 memoir.

If the dehumanization I encountered in Israel and the West Bank was profoundly depressing, I was inspired by those on both sides who press for reconciliation and peace. A Palestinian nurse from Jenin, Mohamed Abu Jafar, whose 16-year-old brother was shot dead by Israeli forces on the street in front of his school, is an example.

“The conflict will not be resolved in military actions,” he told me. “Because they can’t kill us all, and we can’t kill them all.”

The Biden administration says it welcomes a humanitarian pause, and it should push for this more resolutely as an occasion to provide medicine, water and food to civilians while also seeking at least a partial prisoner exchange. It should also ask Israel to refocus its warfare more narrowly on Hamas itself, because every extra bomb that hits civilians digs us deeper into this crater of hatred and will make it more difficult to ever clamber out, look into one another’s eyes and find a path to peace.

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