Open Letter to:
President Mahmoud Abbas, Ramallah
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza City
Occupied Palestinian Territories
Dear President Abbas and Prime Minister Haniyeh:
I write to you in frustration and some alarm as the latest violence unfolds in the Gaza Strip and in Israel. I write as a journalist and humanitarian aid worker who has lived in the West Bank, believes in a two-state solution, and supports no political agenda. The violence, driven by factions that should be under your control and then by subsequent Israeli strikes, has again reached dangerous levels. Your leadership and a radical new approach are urgently required.
The week’s news photos were familiar to me, as they were to you and all Palestinians and Israelis. Body parts and glass shards littering the street after the suicide bombing on February 4 – the first in more than a year – at a shopping center in Dimona in southern Israel. The same week, more pictures of Israelis standing in their shattered living rooms in traumatized Sderot after the latest barrage of Palestinian rockets from Gaza. The photos that preceded and followed were equally familiar, of the inevitable funerals of Palestinians killed by Israeli air raids: mourners wearing green Hamas headbands and shouting for revenge and hoisting aloft youthful corpses in open caskets; grieving Palestinian mothers holding photos of their martyred sons.
The empty statements were as disappointing as ever. The script could have been lifted verbatim from any incident between 2001 and 2004 when I lived and worked in the West Bank. Same slaughter, same excuses, just change the place and the name of the speaker.
A spokesman for Hamas, admitting responsibility, said the shopping mall bombing, which killed an Israeli woman and wounded 11 others, was a “natural reaction to months of killing” of Palestinians by Israel. Another Hamas official referred to such bombings as “glorious acts.” And another told a news agency: “There is no choice, no option for our people, but to resist the occupation and defend themselves by all possible means.”
Resist the occupation and defend yourselves, Mr. Spokesman? No choice? A missile from Gaza landed in a kibbutz four miles inside Israel and wounded two sisters, aged two and 12, who were playing in their yard. (Yes, I know about the far higher casualties among Palestinians; I wrote about it in my book, and have had plenty to say about Israel’s military tactics.)
President Abbas, here’s what you said after Dimona: “These rockets that are being fired at Israel must stop. It's pointless. At the same time, Israel should not use these rockets as a pretext for collective punishment on Palestinians in Gaza.”
That’s what Chairman Arafat used to say, Mr. President: such attacks are “counter-productive.” The statements usually appeared under a headline like “Palestinian Leader Condemns Suicide Bombing.” That’s not a condemnation (although you add, rather half-heartedly, that the attacks should stop), but rather a statement of mild regret driven by self interest. And your remarks were stubbornly linked, as were Arafat’s, to Israel’s violent measures. After suicide bombings, Palestinians used to say to me: “They (Israelis) make us do it. Look what they do to us!” I’ll say to you what I said to them: they don’t make you do it. Reciprocal violence is voluntary. Besides, who gives you the right to kill their civilians because they kill yours?
Although I have long supported a Palestinian state and have many Palestinian friends (some of whom will be infuriated by this letter), I cannot hold back from reminding you that suicide bombings and the insane rocketing of civilians violate the laws of war. The laws of war and the Geneva Conventions apply to you as much as they do to Israel and the United States (although it’s true that Israel and the U.S. seem to feel free to selectively interpret or disregard those conventions when it suits them; that doesn’t mean you should). Attacks on civilians are illegal and immoral, and you should say so, without qualifiers in the same sentence.
As a secondary point, the attacks actually are counter-productive. They drain international and Israeli support for the legitimate cause of Palestinian statehood. They blind the besieged and numbed Palestinian people to the possibility of change, and satisfy nothing except the fruitless desire for revenge. Rockets and suicide bombs practically guarantee that Palestinians will never have an independent state.
Gentlemen, I understand that you are in a serious bind. After 40 years of occupation (and Gaza is still legally occupied, despite the 2005 withdrawal of the settlements), the Palestinian people burn with hopeless rage because they see no end to killing and economic hardship and feel they have nothing to lose. Death – martyrdom – is preferable to their current existence.
I know that the radical change I propose would be politically difficult and physically perilous for you, considering the anger on the streets and the muscle of the well-armed factions, but you have it in you to end the occupation by other means. Accomplishing this will necessitate some fancy political footwork and all the persuasive resources you can muster.
It’s time for what I call a Berlin Wall moment, or you might say a Jerusalem moment. I have in mind something dramatic, revolutionary and inspirational. You can start by repairing this horrible (and truly counter-productive) split between Fatah and Hamas in order to unify your leadership. And then your Jerusalem moment: an appearance on Palestinian television, broadcast simultaneously in Gaza and the West Bank with a live feed to Al Jazeera, that could vie for historical prominence with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
You could explain to the Palestinian people that the leadership was completely renouncing violence as a step toward permanent peace with Israel. Your clear public platform, laying out the years of sacrifices of the Palestinian people as well as the failures of the military campaign, would be hailed as a move of breathtaking courage that could finally set the Middle East on a new course.
By espousing an end to violence – self defense, terrorism, call it what you like – you will face dangers from the hardliners. But you are their elected leaders, and you will offer them something new. Convince them that peace is the only viable option. Sadat knew it and moved boldly; he was assassinated for his troubles, but Egypt and Israel have been at peace ever since.
Years ago, when I argued with a Palestinian that suicide bombings cost Palestinians much-needed world support, he remonstrated with me. “We don’t need it,” he said. He was wrong. You do. That’s why you need to stop the violence. It would be the right thing to do, and Israel and the rest of the world would fall in behind you.
As someone who is neither Palestinian nor Israeli, neither Muslim nor Jew, but who has close Palestinian and Israeli friends, I urge you to do what only Sadat has dared. Such a “Jerusalem moment,” if you can back it up on the ground, would be remembered as historic, humane and far seeing.
I’ll close with a reminder of something you may have seen on the roadside some years ago in Ramallah and maybe in Gaza. A huge billboard, an advertisement for Paltel, the communications company, showed a pigtailed Palestinian girl of about ten looking at a world globe. She was saying: “I can’t find Palestine on the map”.
I’d like to see a photograph of both of you, standing with your Israeli counterparts, smiling and looking at that clever billboard on display in a future museum of the occupation and the intifada, somewhere in Palestine. It’d be one for the history books.
Yours in hope,
Philip C. Winslow
Philip C. Winslow's latest book is Victory for Us is to See You Suffer, an account of his experiences working with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) in the West Bank during the second intifada. Winslow has been a journalist and foreign correspondent for more than twenty years; he also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank . Winslow is also the author of Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War.