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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace



Keep Channels to Hamas Open

Chicago Jewish News

April 14, 2006
By Rabbi Maralee Gordon

The Hamas election victory that secured the majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature poses a moral and pragmatic dilemma for the Jewish community. Hamas is committed in its charter to the destruction of Israel and to acts of violence, yet it is the legitimately elected government of the Palestinian Authority. We are committed to a safe and secure Israeli state, which necessitates living in peace with our neighbor. How to proceed?

Interestingly, recent polls show that 84 percent of Palestinians (including 77 percent of Hamas voters) support a peace agreement with Israel; 73 percent say that Hamas should change its position on the elimination of the State of Israel. (From the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2006, two days after the Palestinian Parliamentary elections.)

In this country, 85 percent of American Jews support the “right of the Jewish people to statehood and the right of the Palestinian people to statehood” (Zogby Intl., 2004), and 75 percent believe that the United States “should push both sides to move towards a peace agreement, even in the face of objections from Israel or the Palestinians.” (Ameinu, 2005) And yet, legislation has been introduced in Congress that would severely curtail the United States' ability in the future to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

Specifically, the Palestinian Anti- Terrorism Act of 2006 establishes a very complicated series of restrictions on providing even humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people; treats everyone in the PA the same as Hamas members, making it prohibitively difficult for the United States to support pro-peace Palestinians such as President Abbas, Salam Fayad, or, indeed, the PLO (the Senate version makes important exemptions for Abbas and the PLO); contains no "sunset clause," and would therefore remain in place even if Hamas moderates its stance towards Israel or if the Palestinians elect a new government.

At its recent Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., AIPAC endorsed the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. Their stance, however, does not represent the entire American Jewish community on what U.S. policy towards the Palestinians should look like.

On the contrary: On March 3, nearly 400 rabbis from across the country and the denominational spectrum of American Judaism, myself included, sent a letter to President George W. Bush, promoting constructive engagement with moderate Palestinians and humanitarian aid to the people as the best way “to preserve the future possibility of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, which is the only path to achieve true peace and security for both peoples.”

Spearheaded by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, the rabbis’ letter addresses the need for sustained humanitarian aid to address the pressing needs of the Palestinian population, as a tangible means to try to mitigate the radicalization of the Palestinian population.

The deterioration in their plight only increases support for extremism, which, in turn, endangers Israel. (For more details about the letter, see rabbisletter.btvshalom.org.)

How often do we cite the wisdom of Hillel's triptych to summarize our ethical teachings: If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? If not now, when? In fact this is both ethics and pragmatism at its core, and certainly in application to our current dilemma. A new World Bank report shows “a sharp cut in funding to the Palestinians after Hamas forms a government could push the West Bank and Gaza into deep economic depression and double the unemployment rate by 2008.”

The U.S. Middle East envoy, James D. Wolfensohn, informed Congress that unless Western aid can bypass Hamas and be delivered to millions of poor Palestinians there will be chaos in the streets and no peace. “I do not believe you can have a million starving Palestinians and have peace,” Wolfensohn said. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “If money to the budget of the PA is cut off, it’s incumbent on all of us to make a maximum effort to beef up direct humanitarian aid to alleviate hardship.” It is possible to get funding through NGOs to the people, funding that does not aid or abet Hamas. Apparently Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believes so as she is expected to announce soon that some $300 million will be channeled through various NGOs to address Palestinian humanitarian needs. In fact, the U.S. government has pledged to do this and can put in place strict auditing requirements.

Additionally the rabbis’ letter recommends that the administration take steps to constructively engage and thereby bolster the moderates within Palestinian society and government, which polls, such as those cited above, clearly demonstrate exist in substantial numbers. Cutting ties with moderate Palestinian leadership will undermine, if not make obsolete, the principles they espouse.

Furthermore, making any decision without waiting to see how the Palestinian leadership actually behaves is surely not the wisest course. In political terms, introducing drastic aid-cutting measures and imposing diplomatic isolation will serve only to diminish U.S. influence and close off opportunities for dialogue, both of which are vital to achieve the goal of a negotiated, final settlement.

The Forward newspaper reported on March 10 that Israeli officials want the AIPAC-backed bill softened, arguing that the bill could end up limiting the diplomatic flexibility of the new Israeli government in dealings with the new PA regime. In addition, Israeli officials said, the bill may place the onus of providing for the well-being of the Palestinian population on Israel, the occupying power in the territories. Indeed, the outbreak of Avian flu among Israeli poultry while work has been curtailed on a West Bank/Gaza project to prevent and contain the deadly avian flu, because it necessitates contacts with Palestinian health ministry officials, demonstrates the shortsightedness of withholding humanitarian aid to the Palestinian population. This outbreak, which is double what was originally thought, has caused Israel to consider holding limited ties with Hamas government officials to deal with humanitarian issues.

What then is our path? Significantly, a number of voices in the Israeli intelligence community have spoken out in favor of continuing to deal with Hamas, reasoning that isolation and punitive tactics will make it much harder for moderates to advocate for cooperation. As one Israeli reserve general put it, there is little to be gained by cutting off ties, and little to be lost by keeping open channels of communication to see if they can lead to constructive dialogue. Setting aside earlier criticism, Israel has recently asked the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to expand its humanitarian program in the occupied territories.

In short, is it not wrong to worsen an already miserable humanitarian situation for political ends? And practically speaking, will not deterioration in the plight of the Palestinians only increase support for extremism, which in turn endangers Israel? A policy that encourages engagement with the Palestinians, not isolation, is the promising one for nurturing hope of a negotiated settlement, the only kind that can be sustained in the long term.

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