Palestinians must make peace with themselves before peace with Israel will be possible

Palestinians must make peace with themselves before peace with Israel will be possible
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What is happening between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza is an immense human tragedy. In just over a week, Hamas has fired about 3,500 rockets. At least 212 people have been killed in Gaza, 12 in Israel. It should not matter on which side of the border a funeral is held; a parent weeping for a child is the ultimate hopelessness. That is why I understand the fraught emotional arguments on both sides of the present crisis. 

But lost in those emotions is this one, plain fact: Israel tried peace with Gaza by unilaterally withdrawing from the region in 2005. In return, it got rocket attacks.   

In 2003, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed Israel’s full disengagement from the Gaza Strip. There was no peace treaty, accord, agreement or handshake. In August 2005, 14,000 Israeli military and police went into Gaza — not to attack Palestinians but to evict, with force in many cases, Jewish settlers. Jewish homes, workplaces, even greenhouses were dismantled.

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Israeli authorities, fearing desecration of synagogues, removed religious articles. They even exhumed and relocated the 48 graves of the Gush Katif cemetery. By September 2005, 8,000 Jews were removed from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip. It was a painful moment for Israel — watching its own military drag their own citizens out in a gamble for peaceful coexistence.  

It is true that, to ensure its security, Israel maintained control over Gaza's air and maritime space, and six of Gaza's seven land crossings. However, the withdrawal was a critical opportunity for Palestinian leadership to demonstrate a capacity to govern effectively, to build roads and housing, to provide a decent quality of life for its people. Gaza’s Mediterranean coast could have rivaled the nicest Mediterranean parcels. That’s what so many were betting on. 

It was a bad bet.

Within 24 hours, Palestinian crowds entered the settlements and ransacked abandoned homes. Palestinian Authority bulldozers demolished the synagogues. Hamas waved a banner proclaiming: “Four years of resistance beat ten years of negotiation.” 

Then, the critical blow to peace occurred — not between Israelis and Palestinians, but a civil war in the Palestinian Authority itself, between the more moderate Fatah and the terrorist Hamas factions. In January 2007, fighting spread throughout Gaza, and rockets were fired on Israel. The Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights found that more than 600 Palestinians were killed by Palestinians from January 2006 to May 2007. But I don’t recall anyone giving speeches in Congress about the loss of Palestinian lives back then. What makes today’s losses more tragic? 

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In the end, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. It has since used the land as a launchpad for rocket attacks and a stage for tunnels that burrow into Israel. It receives training and technology from Iran. It rejects any peace with Israel that leaves Israel with acreage between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. It is in a state of irreconcilable conflict with Fatah, in part because of Fatah’s "moderation" (giving that word the benefit of the doubt) toward Israel. Tell me, critics of Israel, how it can make peace with a government where the fingers of one faction sign an agreement as the fingers of the other faction launch missiles?  

I believe that the Israeli government often sparks tensions with short-sighted, unnecessary moves. I support a two-state solution in which both states make peace and can maintain the security necessary to keep that peace. But when I hear critics of Israel demand that it end its occupation and supposed oppression of Palestinians in Gaza, I must remind them: Been there, done that.  

Before Israel can make peace with Palestinians, Palestinians must make peace with themselves. Then it will be Israel’s turn.   

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.