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Making Sense of the Gaza Strip

Like me you’ve no doubt been following the current hostilities between Israel and Hamas. How much do you know about the situation? I’d like to offer a few bits of information as you seek to make sense of what’s happening there.

First, a bit of history: In ancient biblical times the Gaza Strip was known as the land of the Philistines. The Philistines’ most famous warrior was a giant of a man named Goliath. For decades the Philistines were the Israelites’ arch enemies. The name, Palestinian, was taken from the Latin term for Philistine, though there is likely little blood connection between modern Palestinians and ancient Philistines.

OK, here’s a bit of a geography lesson: The Gaza Strip is a small bit of land in the southwest corner of Israel bordered by Egypt’s Negev Desert to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. In total square miles it is about the size of the city of Wichita, but its population is 4.5 times the size of Wichita’s. About 1.4 million people live there. One million of these are refugees, or the descendants of refugees, who fled their homes in 1948 when Israel was formed.

Here’s a bit more information worth knowing about Gaza: Gaza is surrounded by a security wall. Virtually no one gets in or out. The Israeli Navy blockades its ports. Its airport was destroyed some time ago. These measures were designed to protect Israel from suicide bombers and other security threats from Gaza. Ninety percent of businesses have closed since the 2007 blockade Israel initiated. There is widespread unemployment and poverty. Eighty percent of the people depend on food aid for survival. Water and sewage systems have collapsed. Large numbers of women and children are anemic and malnourished. Electricity and fuel supplies are limited.

The question I found myself asking as the military wing of Hamas began launching its crudely made and ineffective Qussam (Kassam) missiles into Israel two weeks ago was, “Why?”

After all, these missiles have no guidance systems and virtually never hit a real target. They stand no chance of winning a military battle against Israel. These missiles have killed as many Palestinians (as they occasionally fall back into Gaza) as they have Israelis. And the launching of them was almost guaranteed to bring an Israeli attack that would kill large numbers of Palestinians—making their launching of these missiles suicidal.

So, I continued to ask, “Why?”

This is the same question I ask when thinking about young women, mothers of small children, young men in the prime of their life, and even children, offering to act as suicide bombers. Why would someone in Gaza with their whole life ahead of them be willing to fight their own self-preservation instinct in order to become a suicide bomber?

The answer to these questions is important to understand if we are to make sense of what is happening in Gaza. I believe it is found in a Langston Hughes poem I’ve quoted before:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

If the violence and the willingness to commit suicide bombings is the result of a people whose dreams have been deferred, who live in slums in poverty, and who find themselves living without hope, what will it take to stop it? Will a fence? Will F-16 fighter planes? Will the death of 550 Palestinians in Gaza be enough to keep the people from making homemade rockets and strapping homemade bombs to themselves?

There is no doubt the situation is difficult. Israel has a right to protect its people from missiles and suicide bombings. The Palestinians want freedom and they want their land back—land that was taken from them in 1948. The Israelis cannot give the land back—to do so would undermine their national sovereignty. The Palestinians don’t care about Israel’s national sovereignty. They might be willing to share the land, but only in a nation where everyone has an equal voice and vote—a democracy. But a democracy would eventually mean that Jews would be a minority in Israel/Palestine. You begin to get the picture.

I remember on one of my trips to Israel our guide was a Palestinian. We drove past a three-story home/building in Jerusalem. He said, “That was the home I grew up in. It was my family’s home. It was taken from us in 1948.” He then took out a crumpled check from his billfold—it was a check made out to him from the Israeli government offering him compensation for his home. Several thousands of dollars, as I recall. He had received the check years before but refused to cash it. He said, “They have no right to have my home. If I cash this check I’ve given them permission to have my family’s home.”

Yet the family living in his home bought the home four decades ago and multiple generations have lived there since. They have no knowledge of the builders and original owners of the home. Yes, this is a difficult situation and many a dream deferred.

One more bit of information: Just War Theory is an ethical argument dealing with the questions of war. It tries to set forth both the just causes of war, and how one fights a war justly. In the case of the latter, one of the important concepts is proportionality. The acts of war should be proportionate to what precipitated the war to begin with. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime.

When Israel launched its attack against Gaza, one Israeli had been killed by Gazan rocket fire. To date 550 Palestinians have been killed and 2,800 have been wounded by Israeli fire. Seven Israelis have been killed by Palestinians (and several by “friendly fire” from their fellow Israelis). Israel has a right to defend itself. Palestinians in Gaza live with a dream deferred. Will the current military action create a lasting peace? Or will it only bring more hatred, bloodshed and violence?

One final thought: I continue to believe that Jesus offers the one answer, to both sides, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Some see in this weakness. I see in it the only hope for peace.

Adam Hamilton is the author of Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics, and is senior pastor of the 15,000 member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. This column appeared previously on his blog.