Mideast Extremism Requires New Progressive Response

Mideast Extremism Requires New Progressive Response
Image by Lee Jackson via Flickr Creative Commons

By Paul Pierce, Patience Milrod and Darrow Pierce

As we write this, it is Saturday evening, July 26. Earlier today, Israel extended a 12-hour ceasefire by four hours. Hamas has responded by firing rockets into Israel, critically wounding an Israeli civilian. Israel responded to that with tank fire, killing a man in Gaza. Nevertheless, the Israeli cabinet has now voted to extend the truce—such as it is—through Sunday.

Ynet News quotes a Gazan, expressing the hopes of all civilized people: “‘We are looking for a long cease-fire, not only 12 hours,’ said Gaza resident Mohammad Abu Shaaban. ‘We hope the cease-fire will continue and not to return back to the killing and destruction.’”

What would that take, “not to return back to the killing and destruction”? We propose a thought experiment: Let’s imagine that Israel opens all the borders to Gaza and agrees not to use any military force or other violence there. What happens? Honest people will admit: Hamas in Gaza imports—through Egypt and by sea—more powerful ways of making war against Israel; people who call themselves “freedom fighters” cross into Israeli territory to commit mass killings of civilians; Hamas deploys its new weapons to level Israeli cities; and, as we know from Hamas’ charter, the goal is to put an end to the state of Israel.

We speak with some personal knowledge: Darrow lived on a kibbutz two kilometers from Gaza, relentlessly subjected to Hamas shelling that was not in response to any Israeli military action. We strongly endorse Americans’ learning more about this conflict. We also know that personal experience is a compelling teacher: Until Darrow found herself jolted daily by 15-second warnings to find shelter from Hamas’ random violence—which was targeted at civilians—her view of this conflict was much closer to that held by many readers of this publication.

So let’s try the thought experiment in reverse: Let’s imagine Hamas stops firing rockets and sending killers into Israeli cities and kibbutzim, and actually restrains the “rogue” elements who attempt to do so. What happens? Does Israel bombard Gazan cities, or invade Gaza? Honest people will admit: No, it does not.

An immediate precursor of this most recent military violence was civilian violence: the Palestinian kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers, and an unforgivable retaliatory Israeli kidnap and murder of a Palestinian teenager. But the context within which our peoples coexist in the Middle East is fraught with mutual hatreds and resentments, liable to flare up into personal or political violence at any moment.

Just a little reading of history discloses scores of deadly Arab assaults on Jews, and scores of deadly Jewish assaults on Arabs.[1] So there’s plenty of blame to go around. We suggest instead that we who seek peace must focus on what to do about the extremists on both sides—a complex challenge, much more difficult and less emotionally satisfying than screaming “Stop Israeli massacre in Gaza!” or “Stop Hamas terror attacks!”

Israel persists in building settlements in the West Bank—both a provocation and a cynical attempt to ensure that “facts on the ground” eventually guarantee Israeli hegemony over the entirety of what extremist religious parties in Israel consider its Biblical birthright. (The wall, and the blockades, are more problematic: We detest them—and we recognize that the blockades have repeatedly intercepted shipments of armaments into Gaza,[2] and that suicide bombings have almost completely stopped since the wall was built. We welcome suggestions from our friends in Peace Fresno about how to resolve this logistical problem in a way that ensures free trade to Gaza without further endangering Israeli civilian populations.)

Like many other Israelis, prominent authors David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua have repudiated their government’s forcible ejections of Palestinian families from ancestral homes in the West Bank, declaring: “In a reality of ongoing occupation, of solid cynicism and meanness, each and every one of us bears the moral obligation to try and relieve the suffering, do something to bend back the occupation’s giant, cruel hand.”[3] But Israeli extremists’ fanatic commitment to retaining domination over the West Bank holds Israel’s own people hostage. In fact, ordinary Israelis—exactly like their Gazan neighbor, Mohammad Abu Shaaban—also want peace and a secure future for their families.

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, forcefully removing Jewish residents and dismantling synagogues. It left behind thousands of greenhouses that could have provided Gaza with a vibrant industry; Gazans destroyed those greenhouses. Hamas receives hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and shipments of cement and steel—which it has used not to build schools and homes but rather to buy armaments and to build sophisticated hardened military tunnels (at $1 million each) from Gaza into Israel to attack civilians and kidnap hostages.

Worst of all, the men who run Hamas—engineers, doctors and lawyers by training—cannot justify their rocket-firing strategy. As a recent article in The Atlantic noted, “Compared with violent death rates in other parts of the Middle East, the number of dead in Gaza is small. (More than 170,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.) But it is large enough to suggest an answer to Abbas’s question [“What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”]:[4] Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible. ¶ Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse, but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior, because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.”[5]

Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem, lamented Hamas’ parliamentary victory as an “electoral triumph of dogmatism and militancy” by “an organization that denies the moral legitimacy of Israel, that calls for the ultimate destruction of the Jewish state, and that refuses to renounce violence as a means toward accomplishing this goal.”[6] Nusseibeh is correct: Hamas extremists’ commitment to obliterate Israel holds their own people hostage. In fact, as Mohammad Abu Shaaban so poignantly expresses, ordinary Gazans—exactly like their Israeli neighbors—also want peace and a secure future for their families.

We could have spent these 1236 words correcting item by item each factual error in the common trope about this current conflict—but if we’d done that, would you have believed our sources? Would they have changed your mind? Or would you simply have rejected them, because they do not align with your own preconceptions?

We challenge the readers of the Community Alliance, our friends in the progressive community: If you are serious about promoting peace, you will work with us to find a way to harmonize Israel’s right to exist with Palestinians’ right to own and occupy land and to conduct commerce. Together, we will refuse to demonize either side. We will speak respectfully of and to each other. And we will together call out extremists on both sides, isolate them, repudiate their claims to moral legitimacy, and help to free both peoples to find the middle ground on which Israelis and Palestinians can coexist.


Paul Pierce, Patience Milrod and their daughter, Darrow Pierce, are progressives—and Zionists. Darrow became an Israeli citizen in 2008 and served in the Israeli army for two years as a physical trainer. She is now a student at Rachel Corrie’s alma mater, The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA.


[1]Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate; Henry Holt & Co., 1999; pp. 295-415, passim.

[3]Quoted in The Guardian of  June 25, 2013, at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/25/israeli-authors-campaign-west-bank-villagers (accessed June 26, 2014).

[6] Sari Nusseibeh, Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life; Picador, 2007; p. 529.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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