Local experts discuss conflict in Israel, Gaza

Penn State Professor Emeritus of Middle East History Arthur Goldschmidt said the fighting in Gaza that has made headlines since early July is “a very complicated issue.”

The Israeli campaign in Gaza in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel, which is nearing its eighth week, has left more than 2,100 Palestinians – mostly civilians – and 64 Israelis soldiers and four Israeli civilians dead.

The basis of the current conflict dates back decades, but roots to the land extend back millennia.

It’s interesting to see what part of the history each side tends to leave out, said Goldschmidt, a Unitarian.

The Jews tend not to mention the Arabs they expelled in 1948, he said.

The Arabs tend not to mention the Jews their governments expelled in the region as a result of the expulsion of the Palestinians, he said.

For even the most fair-minded people on each side, it’s difficult to be objective, because they’re “almost required by their communities” to be in line with their side’s version of events, according to Goldschmidt.

Otherwise, they risk being shunned, he said.

Local Jewish leaders – speaking with a consistent voice – lament the bloodshed, but blame it on Hamas.

A pair of area Muslim leaders also lament the bloodshed – and one wonders why people so closely related ethnically and religiously can’t end it, with a little help.

Does Israel have an alternative for Hamas?

“I’ve always been horrified by war and loss of life,” said Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel.

But Israel has had no alternative to the rocket fire that has rained down, except to counterattack, she said.

If Mexico started lobbing rockets into the United States, it wouldn’t go unanswered, said Rabbi Josh Wohl of Agudath Achim Synagogue.

Still, Israel has forfeited international goodwill with the deaths in Gaza, Korotkin said.

Hamas’ efficient publicity machine has ensured that, she said.

Hamas speaks of the Israeli “occupation,” and the pictures are always of victims, not of the rockets Hamas sends into Israel, she said.

Well-meaning people around the world protest what’s happening, with slogans like “Free Palestine,” Korotkin said.

People don’t understand that Hamas wants to wipe out the Israeli state and that humanitarian aid money has been used for armaments and to build “terror tunnels,” she said.

For many, the protests are a cover for anti-Semitism, she said. That becomes apparent when demonstrations that begin with themes like “Free Gaza” quickly move to themes like “Kill the Jews,” said Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.

There are big Muslim populations in France and Britain – mostly lower income and often displaced and unhappy, he said. “Failures in life” who look for those they can blame for their problems.

They take it out on the Jews, he said.

The anti-Semitism is “a perfect example of why Israel must exist,” as a state where there is no question Jews are welcome, Korotkin said.

Israel has complemented its offensives in Gaza with a missile interception system called Iron Dome, and its people are protected also by reinforced safe rooms in houses near the border, Wallen said.

That contrasts with Hamas embedding its rockets among its people, which has led to many civilian deaths – inevitable when Israel targets those installations, he said.

Israel uses rockets to protect its people, while Hamas uses people to protect its rockets, Wallen said. It shows a different conception of the value of human life.

Israel is a modern oasis of energy and achievement in the desert, arrayed against a host of antagonistic – or less than supportive – Muslim nations, according to Korotkin, Wohl and Wallen.

The Israelis have worked hard and become a “miraculous success story,” maintaining a democracy and a free press, turning a “wasteland” into a haven of fertility and production, forming startup companies, advancing medicine and creating technology, he said.

Those accomplishments would be even greater if not for the need to fight their neighbors, he said.

“Unfortunately, we chose our house in a bad neighborhood,” Wohl said.

Modern conflict

The modern state of Israel was formed in 1948, after the United Nations proposed a two-state partition plan, according to Korotkin.

The plan wasn’t perfect for either side, she said. But the Jews accepted it and acted upon it. The Palestinians

didn’t accept it and fought against it.

About 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or otherwise left their homes in the newly designated Israel, becoming refugees. In response, many Jews living in Arab countries in the Middle East were expelled or otherwise left their homes.

Most of the Palestinians who left their homes clung to their status as refugees, and their descendants are refugees still, Korotkin said.

By contrast, most of the Jewish refugees migrated to Israel, which absorbed them quickly and turned them into productive citizens, Korotkin and Wallen said.

It doesn’t make sense that the Palestinians remained refugees and that their grievances continued to fester, according to Korotkin and Wallen. That was encouraged for “political purposes,” Korotkin said.

The leaders robbed the people, kept them in poverty and used them as pawns, Wallen said.

They blamed the Jews, which distracted the people from what the leaders were doing and kept the leaders from having to solve the problems, Wallen said.

The Palestinians taught their kids that the Jews are descendants of pigs, and that they are evil and need to be killed, Wohl said.

The denial of reality represented by the hope of “return” has kept the Palestinians from accepting Israel’s existence, Korotkin said. All the indoctrination is hard to overcome, Wohl said.

It works the other way, too, with Jews who are taught that Arabs are nothing but terrorists, Wallen said.

Each side labels its counterpart as “the other,” Wallen said.

It enables each side to avoid looking at those on the other side as actual people, he said.

Most Israelis and most U.S. Jews support a two-state solution, according to Wallen.

Otherwise, the world would end up with a Jewish state that isn’t a democracy, because of the need to quash revolutionary elements or else a non-Jewish Israel, because a single, unified state would have a Palestinian majority, Wallen said.

But the two-state solution can only work when “dealing with rational and sane” participants, Wohl said.

Hamas doesn’t qualify, he said. In a two-state model, the demilitarization of Gaza would be a pre-requisite, Korotkin said. She’s nevertheless optimistic about the future “if Israel doesn’t have to do it alone,” she said.

Outside help is key

The international community needs to accept its responsibility for what’s happened in the past, and help rebuild Gaza “as a place where people can live,” she said.

If the international community does not accept that responsibility, Israel may need to make common cause with other neighboring nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, who also fear jihadist groups like Hamas and the Islamic State, she said.

“‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ kind of thing,” she said.

The U.S. could help the cause by working with those moderate Arab nations, although the U.S. dependence on Saudi oil can interfere, Wallen said.

Pressure also needs to be brought against Israel to “sit down and work it out,” Wallen said.

Failing those kinds of diplomatic efforts, it’s hard to imagine that one person – a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Martin Luther King Jr. – could overcome the systematically engrained alienation that has developed, Wohl said.

Nevertheless, there may be reason for hope in the success of special programs that have brought Arab and Israeli kids together, Wallen said.

Many Palestinians actually live on good terms with Israelis, he said.

But “you don’t hear much of that,” he stated.

Common blood ties

Jews and Arabs are of the same Semitic race, said Dr. Mohammad Dowlut, president of the Islamic Center of Central Pennsylvania in Hollidaysburg.

Scriptures speak of Abraham as the patriarch of both Jews and the Arabs – the Jews descended from Abraham’s son, Isaac, and the Arabs from his son Ishmael, Dowlut said.

“Cousins,” Dowlut said.

Arabs and Jews lived peacefully together until the 20th century, he said.

It was only in 1917, when the British gave their blessing for a Jewish state in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration, and more critically, in the late 1940s, with the actual partition of Palestine, that trouble began, he said.

But the Arabs didn’t cause the Holocaust, he said.

The Romans scattered the Jews in the first century A.D.

The Byzantines slaughtered the Jews in the 600s.

But when Islamic caliph Umar conquered Palestine in the 600s, he invited the Jews to return, Dowlut said.

There were no problems until the Christian crusaders came 600 years later, he said.

When Muslims retook Palestine from the Crusaders, there were again no problems between Jews and Arabs, Dowlut said.

“They can live together again,” Dowlut said. “Why not?”

Still, it wasn’t fair of the Israelis “to kick the Arabs out” and take their homes in Palestine, Dowlut said.

The Palestinians are living in Gaza as they would in jail, hemmed in on three sides and blockaded by sea, he said.

They’re hard working and educated, but they’ve been humiliated by the Israelis taking their land and subjecting them to checkpoints, he said.

‘Common sense’

It’s time to break the impasse and “sit and talk common sense,” he said.

Hamas doesn’t have the right to send rockets into Israel, Dowlut said.

But neither is it right for Israel to bomb Gaza, killing women and children, he said.

It would be fine for Israel to disarm Gaza, permitting no Army – only a police force, Dowlut said.

But there must be no more settlements, and Jerusalem should be free, he said.

It can work, “if you get the right people to talk,” Dowlut said.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, the Arab League and the West Bank have agreed that Israel should continue to exist, he said.

Hamas has not, but that organization is “only one part of the whole equation,” Dowlut said.

The Palestinians can never destroy Israel and its powerful army, Dowlut said.

They have no planes, tanks or helicopters, and their rockets are “totally inaccurate” and subject to interception by Israeli counter-missiles anyway, he said.

Hamas can safely be ignored, he said.

If Israel would let up its chokehold, the Palestinians themselves would throw out Hamas, he said.

But Israel’s response to the rockets has been disproportionate and devastating, he said.

Only the U.S. has the leverage to broker a deal, with someone like cool-headed former President Bill Clinton in charge, he said.

Israel has brains, knowledge, experience and money, and Arabs are diligent and studious, he said.

If radicalism on both sides is removed, peace can be achieved, and both sides can prosper, he said.

The situation in Gaza is complicated, said Samia Suliman, an assistant professor in the Engineering, Science and Mechanics Department at Penn State in an email, echoing Goldschmidt.

But the right to defend oneself is basic, she said.

It’s also applicable to both sides, she said.

She hopes that elected leaders make the right choices, ending the bloodshed, she said.

Both to blame?

Both sides have been at fault, Goldschmidt said.

There has been “lots of cruelty and suffering,” he said – although the Palestinians’ suffering has probably been greater, he said.

Historically, however, the Jews have endured persecution. Maybe that happened because as minority residents, without power, they became targets of people with “free-floating anger,” people who could indulge that anger without fear of reprisal, he said.

Likewise, Arabs have been subject to invaders and outside rule for a thousand years, he said.

Both groups are highly conscious of “anything that would derogate their power, dignity and ability to survive,” which has contributed to the intractability of the problem, Goldschmidt said.

There is no perfect solution, he said.

But improvements can be made, he said.

They include ensuring the rights of Palestinians living Israel and the rights of Jews living under Palestinian rule, while providing sanctions for countries where minorities are mistreated, he said.

Achieving those improvements, however, will take political will on the part of Arabs and Jews in the great countries of the world, he said.

Ultimately, though, “I really don’t have a good answer,” he confessed.