As I follow the news these days — the back and forth of who promised what to whom in today’s dystopian world where pundits and politicians value scoring points more than truth — it’s almost easy to forget that people are dying and grieving in the Holy Land.
Amira Hass wrote in an op-ed in Haaretz, “The Gazans who have been uprooted from their homes are staying throughout the Gaza Strip: In 86 UNRWA schools, roughly 20 government schools, public parks, several churches, hospitals, NGO premises, warehouses belonging to shops, the garages of family homes, with relatives and friends and also in empty apartments whose owners let people live there free of charge. They are joined by a continuous stream of more displaced people as the Israeli army expands its operations westward and southward, bombarding and flattening more neighborhoods and communities.” Of the 1.8 million residents of Gaza, nearly 450,000 are now displaced people. Sadly, today, as you read these words, you’ll need to update all the numbers on all sides.
Between being battered by reports of rockets, bombs and air strikes on one side, the cries of suffering victims on another and dueling TV hosts and squabbling politicians preaching from the safety of studios, there are few quiet moments these days. Today, as I struggle to think about another failed cease-fire, the ancient Treaty of Hudaybiyah comes to mind as a time when reason triumphed over the prospect of war.
In the first-century of Islam, Muslims in Medina were engaged in an ongoing series of battles with the pagans of Mecca. Finally, with Muslims pushing to be able to travel to Mecca to perform pilgrimage, the warring parties met in Hudaybiyah to negotiate a cease-fire and eventual treaty.
“This is the treaty of peace between Muhammad ibn Abdullah and Suhayl ibn Amr. They have agreed to allow their arms to rest for 10 years. During this time each party shall be secure, and neither shall injure the other; no secret damage shall be inflicted, but honesty and honor shall prevail between them…”
“… This year, Muhammad, with his companions, must withdraw from Mecca, but next year, he may come to Mecca and remain for three days, yet without their weapons except those of a traveler, the swords remaining in their sheaths.”
In 628 C.E., as negotiations for the treaty neared a successful conclusion Suhayl ibn Amr, the Meccan negotiator, objected to the treaty’s reference to Muhammad as Prophet of God. Muhammad, setting aside his ego, told his cousin Ali, acting as scribe, to erase the contested phrase.
When Ali refused, the illiterate Muhammad asked him to point out “Prophet of God” in the text. Then, with Ali’s pen, Muhammad scratched out the phrase himself and the treaty was signed.
Muhammad’s followers were not pleased. Not only were they offended by the deletion of “Prophet of God,” they were offended they couldn’t perform pilgrimage and also couldn’t prosecute the war they had been looking forward to — and gaining its treasure.
Muhammad prevailed. The Muslims withdrew and returned the next year for pilgrimage.
In the end, the sword did not conquer Mecca. It was conquered by the threat of force combined with negotiation and reason. When Mecca finally fell, only 14 people are said to have died, two Muslims and 12 Meccans.
Ego was set aside, swords sheathed and peace embraced.
This morning as I write, rewrite and struggle to find meaning in the Gaza conflict, yet another cease-fire has collapsed and an Israeli soldier has possibly been kidnapped. By noon Friday, with over 50 Israelis killed and with a Palestinian count now over 1,300 dead and 6,000 wounded, it looks to be another bloody weekend.
As I write and rewrite, many journalists, especially program hosts such as David Gregory (NBC) and Wolf Blitzer (CNN) are unable to set aside their biases while discussing this tragic conflict.
Others, as I write and rewrite, such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, co-host of “Morning Joe,” sincerely struggle to deliver balance. Today, in a monologue clarifying his position on the war, Joe argues that Israel is America’s strongest ally in the region and wrongly that the war started with rocket barrages from Hamas, but argues correctly, as others like Peter Beinart have, that prolonged killing will only weaken Israel and strengthen Hamas — that Hamas was on the ropes before the war and is stronger now and that while Israel has a right to respond, a disproportionate response is counterproductive.
(Disclosure: I write to Joe occasionally through an intermediary. He never answers, but maybe my friend is getting through!) Yet, through all the wringing of hands, rending of garments and keening of mourners, no pundit or politician has enough self-confidence to set aside their ego and take a risk opening a path toward peace except for American Secretary of State John Kerry.
Poor John Kerry, pummeled again for speaking truth to power. Attacked by Israel and its supporters for trying to deal with real Palestinian grievances as well as security issues for Israelis and Palestinians and attacked by Egypt and Arab autocracies for seeming to legitimize an Islamist group that came to power through democratic elections — the one thing autocrats fear more than they hate Israel.
Kerry’s cease-fire proposal was condemned as a Hamas “win.” A win? The win wasn’t for Hamas. The win was for the possibility of releasing the pressure on Gaza. The best way to defeat Hamas is not with assassinations, bombs and the blowing up of tunnels, but in offering hope to Palestinians — to easing the despair of the 1.8 million prisoners in the world’s largest prison camp.
Kerry’s sin was offering hope.
Poor John Kerry, pilloried for recognizing that engaging Hamas has more potential than simply aligning with Hamas’ enemies.
Poor John Kerry, impertinent enough to talk to Qatar and Turkey — countries that actually have influence with Hamas.
Dear Joe Scarborough, a note for next time: This war did not start with a barrage of rockets from Gaza — it started with Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of attempts by Palestinian parties to form a unity government and with Netanyahu’s cynical exploitation of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.
This Gaza war is a war of choice. Just as George W. Bush pivoted from Afghanistan to a war of choice in Iraq to appease his vice president and neoconservative right wing, Netanyahu pivoted from the murder of the teenagers (without finding their killers and after blaming Hamas without any proof) to a war of choice in Gaza as revenge against the Palestinian unity government — all the while killing any possibility for a two-state solution.
In the end, it’s not about choosing between Israel and Hamas; it’s about recognizing — and acting upon the recognition — that a two-state solution is the best path toward resolving the conflict between the two peoples.
John Kerry knows that America’s security interests are at stake in the outcome. He knows that Israel is strong enough to sheath its sword — it has both overwhelming military power and American support and it shouldn’t risk everyone’s future by refusing to set aside its ego.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.