Julia Chaitin, Israeli Peacebuilder, on the Israeli-Gazan War


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The lead graphic for this post was taken during a March for Peace three days before the October 7 attack. At least one of the women in this photograph is now being held hostage.

Newsletter #168— October 29, 2023

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion


This post is based on an email exchange that we had about a week ago with an Israeli peacebuilding colleague who lives near the Gaza border. It provides a window into what it's like for Israelis living near the border and, especially, what October 7 has meant for peacebuilders who have spent their lives trying to find a way to bring peace to this troubled land.

Julia Chaitin has been a colleague of ours for a long time.  She participated in the beginning of Beyond Intractability, and came to one (perhaps more, I no longer remember) of our planning meetings that helped create the BI Knowledge Base.  She also contributed a few written pieces to it, one on Narratives and Storytelling relating to her peacebuilding work between Israelis and Palestinians and descendants of Holocaust perpetrators and survivors, another entitled Creating Safe Spaces for Communication, drawn from the same work. She co-authored a third piece with Patrick Hiller on The Bedoins in Israel's Negev Desert: Ubiquitous yet Invisible to the Dominant Society. She also contributed an interview with Julian Portilla  about this and related work. She also has written a number of books, including Routine Emergency: The Meaning of Life for Israelis Living Along the Gaza Border and Peace-building in Israel and Palestine: Social Psychology and Grassroots Initiatives.

We had been very worried about Julia ever since October 7, because, to Heidi's memory, she lived in Sderot. We finally got in touch with her, by email, about a week ago and was greatly relieved to learn that she was okay — traumatized, no doubt, as all Israeli's are, but she was uninjured (so far) and is not a hostage.  She explained that she doesn't live in Sderot, though she used to teach at Sapir College which was right next door. She now lives in a kibbutz which, while it is near Gaza, is slightly farther away. She said that during the first three days

We had alerts that there were terrorists near the kibbutz and had to lock ourselves in our houses and safe rooms. It was a miracle that they did not manage to come in. We had no army here until Sunday morning and no weapons to defend ourselves, just a few guys with pistols. It would have been a massacre if they came in, since most people here don't have safe rooms either. We are not safe. No one is. There are ongoing rockets in the entire area.

I responded with surprise, as I'd read that everyone near the Gazan border had safe rooms. In response to the news that there are ongoing rockets and nowhere safe to go, I asked whether she was hoping for a ceasefire as soon as possible. Julia said we could share her answer here.  That follows. Thank you to Julia for sharing this. -- Heidi Burgess 


From Julia (sent on October 23, 2023)

I see that there is a lot of information that you don't have. I'll try to provide some of it here:

1. The government provided safe rooms for the communities that are up to 7 km. from the border with Gaza. A community that is, say, 7.2 km. away, did not get them. My kibbutz is about 14 km away. Therefore, the govt did not provide safe rooms for us. We built one with our own money in 2017. I am estimating that about 10% of the families have done that. That means the rest of the population do not have a safe space in their home when there are rockets. We do have bomb shelters. However, here we have about 20 -25 seconds to reach safety when there are rockets, so running outside to a shelter is not a good idea, since the worst place to be is outside.

2. The reason for not building safe rooms is money and the (stupid) logic, that the rockets would know where the 7 km ends and wouldn't cross over that 'line'. Every community in this region is in danger, though of course, the communities right on the border are in the most danger.

3. Even though our kibbutz is not one of the border communities (like Netiv Ha'asara, Nachal Oz, Kfar Aza, Nir Oz etc.), our regional schools are in the heart of Otef Aza (literally, the Gaza envelope), as is our regional council. When you drive out of my kibbutz and head north and/or west at all, within 3-5 minutes you are in immediate rocket danger. When you drive about 8- 9 minutes, you are in mortar attack danger as well. 

4. On Oct 7th, the Hamas/Islamic Jihad passed by our kibbutz - they were less than a km. away, and there were shots that I heard. They wounded one of our members who was out on the road on his Saturday morning bike ride. They did not come into our kibbutz and our best guess is that they were aiming for Ofakim - a town about 10 km away from us to the east. However, during the next number of days, there were still many terrorists in the entire region, including on the outskirts of our kibbutz (yesterday, the army captured yet another man who was still in the area). The terrorists came prepared to kill and take hostages. They had RPGs, hand grenades, automatic weapons. They burned down houses in a number of communities to coerce people to come out. They broke into houses and managed to break into a number of safe rooms and kill people/take them hostage from there. Safe rooms are supposed to guard against rocket/missile attacks; they weren't built for terror attacks of this sort.

5. My first concern is for the 222 hostages (that is the most recent number of hostages (updated as of Oct. 23, but that number is not final). Since not all the bodies have been identified, the number changes at least once a day, as they undertake this gruesome task.)

The hostages must be released immediately. The terrorists took babies, children, teens, adults of all ages, older people in their mid 80s!  Hamas has refused to have the Red Cross come in and check them. They have been held hostage now for 16 days and except for the 2 women who were released (US citizens), there is no information about the others. One of the hostages is my dear friend Vivian Silver  from Kibbutz Be'eri. She is 74... another one is Luis Har (70) a member of my kibbutz.

6. To be honest, I don't know what I think about a ceasefire. I am completely against punishing the Gaza civilian population. They are victims of their horrendous regime, Israel's 16 year blockade of Gaza, Egypt's apathy and disregard of them, as well. The problem is that the Hamas/Jihad use the population as human shields - in mosques, schools, hospitals, apartment buildings... so, I don't know how the army can eradicate the Hamas regime and rid the area from these terror organizations without harming innocent civilians (the majority of which are minors, under 21 - Gaza's population is a very young one). I think the first priority should be to get the hostages released (perhaps in a prisoner exchange) and then the army can carry out its missions against Hamas. There is no doubt in my mind that Hamas/Jihad and other splinter terrorist groups need to be eradicated, as much as possible. They terrorize their own population as well, not only ours.

7. When this is all over, Gaza needs to be rebuilt, in every possible way - economically, socially, educationally, health-wise, employment, social welfare, politically, etc. - so that it will be a sustainable, strong, healthy area. My thinking at the moment is that what is needed is international cooperation that undertakes this building and that young leadership from the ground becomes Gaza's leadership. I know that there are young adults there who have the abilities and desire to lead their society in these different areas. Alongside this, there have  to be truly good relations between Israel - Gaza - Egypt. This is a very, very, very long-term process, but one that I believe must be achieved and can eventually be achieved, IF the nations commit themselves to doing right by the people of Gaza, it will be possible. Israeli lives and Gazan lives are intertwined, as Oct 7th so brutally showed us. We need to adopt a completely different paradigm so that all peoples of this region will have wonderful reasons for living.

Guy and Heidi's response (written October 28, 2023):

We found Julia's narrative very moving and profound. The key question that both she and we have yet to answer is how can Israel do the apparently impossible — disarm and remove Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and "other splinter terrorist groups" from power, while minimizing harm to innocent civilians. 

And how will it be possible to rebuild Gaza in the way she describes? The Palestinians had the opportunity to build a Gaza like that when Israel first withdrew from the area in 2005. But as we wrote in our original article, under Hamas "leadership," they chose not to. They chose to use massive amounts of humanitarian aid to try to eradicate Israel instead. Will the current devastating attack change anyone's minds? It seems unlikely to. Rather, the desperation, the hatred, the fear will just be stronger — on both sides.

So how do we get from where we are now to "good relations between Israel, Gaza, and Egypt?" Perhaps a combination of support and pressure (carrot and stick) from the international community to approach this problem in a new way would be useful, as Julia suggests.

But right now too many in the international community seem to be coming to the conclusion that Israel, not Hamas, is the principal villain in this story.  As long as that happens, the situation is going to continue to be very grim, we fear, as Israel will feel increasingly isolated and threatened and will see no alternative but to react evermore aggressively until it can regain some sense of security.

As we have so often pointed out, John Burton and colleagues long ago proposed that an inability to meet fundamental human needs was behind most, if not all, intractable (he called them "deep-rooted") conflicts. The three human needs he talked about most were identity, security, and recognition. As things now stand, these fundamental needs are not being met on either side. Palestinian antipathy and grotesque violence toward Israel and Judaism is the opposite to respect for another group's identity. And Israel's reaction to this antipathy and violence is reflected in a corresponding disdain for Palestinian culture and well being. 

Even worse is the lack of security.  Before October 7, Israelis felt fairly secure on the Gazan border.  They were far more concerned about the internal struggle about Prime Minister Netanyahu's proposed judicial reform, which some said was close to causing an Israeli civil war  (We had been scheduled to do a video interview with Julia about her attempts to reconcile the two sides in that conflict on October 12. But by then, that topic was, at least for the time being, quite irrelevant.) Also, before the attack there was apparently some concern about Palestinian threats from the West Bank, as soldiers who would normally have been on the Gazan border were re-deployed to the West Bank. This was part of why so many Hamas terrorists were able to cross over what would normally be a very secure barrier.

And certainly Gazans were never secure.  Hamas gravely mistreats its own citizens, redirecting most humanitarian aid to military uses.  And, Israel frequently bombed Gaza in response to rockets shot from Gaza into Israel. Since Gaza routinely shoots rockets from civilian areas, using civilians as human shields (also as Julia pointed out), makes it very hard to avoid killing civilians.  This was Hamas's design. By keeping Gazans desperate, they can, as Walter Russel Mead said, "inculcate an ideology of genocidal rage" which we saw on full display on October 7.

There is no doubt that the international community must find a way to provide security and a meaningful identity to all the people of the region if this apparently infinite war is going to be ended.  But first, we believe, the advocates of genocide have to be eliminated or firmly discredited, disempowered, and/or firmly controlled.  Only then, it seems to us, will we be able to build the different Gaza that Julia refers to or develop a different paradigm for attaining long-term peace in the region.

This, of course, all is easier said than done.  At the simplest, though still staggeringly difficult and dangerous level, this involves finding and neutralizing the weapons and the Hamas fighters now hidden within Gaza's densely populated urban environment.  A subsequent and equally challenging task will be to prevent those forces from being reconstituted.  As suggested above, a further challenge is to find ways to limit the kind of collateral damage that could both inflame anti-Israeli world opinion and motivate a new generation of terrorists.  Also critical is finding some way to reform the Palestinian Authority (or some successor organization) so that it can offer Palestinians a positive alternative to the PA's corruption and Hamas' terrorism. Fortunately, there are people trying to figure out how this might actually be done. For example, consider this proposal from Salam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority or this plan being developed by Dennis Ross and others at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.  While these plans are doubtless still quite controversial, finding a path out of this crisis depends upon developing ideas like these into a truly workable plan.

Daniel Gordis, an Israeli rabbi and blogger today quoted Yehuda Yifrach, an Israeli journalist who wrote

The [Israeli] government has decided to topple Hamas and to deny it any military or ruling capacities. The problem is that while it is possible to recapture the Gaza Strip and to kill all of Hamas’ leaders, Hamas is first and foremost an idea, and it is not possible to kill an idea. The worship of the sword and of death is emblazoned on the hearts and minds of millions of Palestinians who were nursed on jihadistic toxicity from their earliest days, and they know no other taste.

We would like to think that that is an exaggeration, had we not read it in so many other places, including from Arabs. (See for instance, the chilling article by Hussein Aboubakr Mansour, "The Savage Nihilism of 'Free Palestine.') That said, it is also true that there are many Palestinians (see this, this, and this for example) who would like nothing more than to escape the grip of Hamas and cycle of violence and destruction.  Peacebuilding, as it is now constituted, isn't up to the task of fixing such deep-rooted and widespread hatred. And military confrontation certainly can't do it—it just entrenches the hatred further, and further harms Israel in the world of public opinion. So, as we said in our original post, we don't know the answers.  But it is high time peacebuilders (and everyone else) abandon their simplistic solutions and focus on finding better ways to deal with the scale and complexity of the problem. Indeed, some have, and we'll be sharing some of these ideas in a follow-up post.

As we said in our original post, we welcome comments, and thank Julia for sharing hers. 


Lead graphic from "A Family’s ‘Terrible Hope’ for a Peace Activist Taken Hostage" by Fetta Prince-Gibson. Time Magazine October 18, 2023. 

https://time.com/6324685/vivian-silver-hamas-hostage-gaza-israel/. This is Julia's friend who she mentioned in this article.

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